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Terry Cowgill
A worker toils away behind a sign and visual rendering for the Powerhouse Square project on Bridge Street.

Cranes and beams have arrived, pushing Powerhouse Square to a new phase

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By Friday, Oct 12, 2018 News

Great Barrington — You know a building project is getting serious when they call in the cranes. But that’s exactly what has happened at 34 Bridge St., where steel beams, pulleys and hard hat-wearing workers have become the order of the day.

The Powerhouse Square project, as it’s known locally, entered a new phase this week as workers began to frame the building that will house the new Berkshire Co-op Market and 22 condominium residences, along with additional retail and office space.

Brian Cohan of Benchmark Development displays a rendering of Powerhouse Square at a January 2017 meeting of the Great Barrington Selectboard. Photo: Heather Bellow

“We’re really proud of the project and excited about what it means for downtown and the Co-op,” said Brian Cohan, a principal of the developer, the Lenox-based Benchmark Development. “We think this is the beginning of quite a few significant things that are going to happen on Bridge Street and we love being a part of that.”

Click here and here for a look at those “significant things”

The first phase of the $30 million development plan will feature a ground-level 14,500-square-foot new home for the Berkshire Co-op Market. Cohan and his partner, Michael Charles, expect to open the new Co-op building in the first quarter of 2019.

That’s what the cranes and workers are all about this week. The goal is to get the new building completely framed out and roofed so that, by the dead of winter, workers can focus on the interior if the weather prohibits outside activity.

A new parking lot will go where the Co-op currently sits. The old Co-op, which will remain open for the duration of the construction, will be the retail anchor with a long-term lease from Benchmark. 

The foundation and basement of the future Powerhouse Square building on Bridge Street in Great Barrington is visible from the eastern end of the site. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The second phase will see the construction of a 32-unit condominium complex and parking garage set back to the south, closer to the John Dewey Academy property, also known as Searles Castle. 

Cohan could not say with certainty when that project would start but he did indicate it would depend largely on achieving a critical mass of sales in phase one. Two units are under contract, with another five on the horizon.

“I think one of the challenges in our market is people really feel they need to buy from a building that actually exists, whereas, up until this point, we had been selling off of renderings and spec books and things like that,” Cohan explained. “So when the physical product is there, we expect all the activity will pick up.”

The units upstairs in the Co-op building are mostly one- and two-bedroom and sell anywhere from $300,000 to $500,000. The units in the second building are larger. Some of those units run in excess of $900,000. Click here to view floor plans and renderings in both buildings.

One question is whether the market exists for so many market-rate condos — in this case, 55 of them in downtown Great Barrington. But Cohan said he and Charles did extensive market research in preparing a business model to secure financing.

A crane towers above the Powerhouse Square project Friday morning. Photo: Terry Cowgill

He said that, even in a rural area such as the Berkshires, young people and old alike want to be near a downtown where all the action is. They want to be able to walk to a variety of amenities while still having access to culture and the outdoors.

“It’s the idea of living on a main street where you can park the car, live and walk out the front door and go to a coffee shop or store and just be a part of the action,” Cohan said. “People really want that today.”

That’s one reason why Cohan and Charles are also planning a similar project in downtown Lee, where Benchmark is in the early stages of acquiring the former Price Chopper property and turning it into a mixed-use development. Cohan said Benchmark has not yet acquired the property and that the project is still in the due-diligence phase. 

Back to the market. Recent data indicates a significant uptick in real estate sales in Berkshire County since at least 2011. Most recently, for example, from January to June of this year, the dollar value of condominium sales rose 81 percent over the same period in 2017. The gains were greatest were in the southern part of the county, according to the Berkshire County Board of Realtors. 

Research also shows that millennials are more inclined to want to live downtown or in a city than previous generations. One of the reasons cited by General Electric, for example, in its recent move from Fairfield County, Connecticut, to Boston was that attracting young talent to work in suburban office parks was proving almost impossible.

Old Glory flies over the steel beams that will be the backbone of the Powerhouse Square project. Photo: Terry Cowgill

One of the factors that has confronted Benchmark, but which was not evident three years ago when planning for Powerhouse began, was the extent to which the labor market has tightened. That has made the subcontractor “buy-out” more challenging.

It’s a combination of low unemployment nationwide and other significant construction projects competing for labor in Berkshire County. Cohan was not complaining, though, insisting that “this is good for Berkshire County.”

“There are a lot of big projects going on: North Adams is thriving; Cranwell and Tanglewood have a huge projects,” Cohan said. “There is a lot of construction going on. That’s all good for the county and for the market but it makes it challenging to compete and so that’s been a lot of work, but nothing we haven’t faced in the past.”

And since Powerhouse Square is a downtown project, it has seen the same kinds of infrastructure challenges a developer might find in, say, Boston or New York. There are utilities to bury and much coordination with the town.

Cohan cited one example of having to work with the town in making sure downtown Great Barrington’s upcoming MassWorks repaving, sidewalk and drainage project did not conflict with his. 

It would have been wasteful, for example, for the repaving of Bridge Street, which will be widened slightly, to precede the completion of Powerhouse Square. Indeed, it might have necessitated some wasteful redundancy of work.

Construction workers on the first floor of the Powerhouse Square building on Bridge Street in Great Barrington. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“We’re in full coordination with them in making sure that we do work one time and don’t tear up any new work and that kind of thing,” Cohan. “The town has been great to work with.” 

Indeed, Sean VanDeusen, who heads the Great Barrington Department of Public Works, told the Edge that work on Bridge Street wouldn’t commence until phase one of Powerhouse Square is expected to be complete.

“The town has been communicating with Powerhouse Square weekly about their project,” VanDeusen said in a text message. “We expect our work to begin on Bridge Street the middle of next spring after Railroad Street is completed.” 

Back to the market again. One source of interest in Powerhouse Square in the last few months was a New York Times story, “Betting On The Berkshires,” that was published in April. The article included perspectives on the recent rise in development projects, including cultural venue expansions, farm-to-table dining and craft breweries. Powerhouse Square also got a mention.

“We immediately saw traffic directly correlated to that [article],” Cohan said. “That’s the best kind of promotion for a project — when it’s coming from a different source other than ourselves.”

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