Divided GB Planning Board recommends Bridge Street hotel project

Great Barrington — At Thursday’s (October 8) three-and-half hour Planning Board hearing, it all boiled down to this: the former Searles School building realistically can’t be saved, and 79 Bridge Street LLC’s proposal for a 95-room boutique hotel, while not agreeable to everyone, is a real live proposal to deal with a languishing building and site.

In a 3-2 vote, the board recommended that the Selectboard, at its November 9 hearing, give the project the special permit it needs to move forward.

A rendering of the proposed 95-room upscale hotel on the site of the former Searles School.
A rendering of the proposed 95-room upscale hotel on the site of the former Searles School.

The Berkshire, as it is called, will have a 5,000 square foot conference room, indoor pool, 60-seat restaurant and a bar, all built on roughly the same footprint as the Searles building, which sits next to the Housatonic River. The proposed $22 million to $24 million hotel, if built, will be one of four owned by Vijay and Chrystal Mahida, including the Day’s Inn and Fairfield Suites Comfort Inn in Great Barrington, and the newly opened a Hilton Garden Inn in Lenox. The Berkshire is Chrystal Mahida’s own project, and one the Mahidas are paying for themselves, without tax breaks. The hotel is estimated to provide the town with $450,000 in tax revenues each year.

But since it was unveiled two weeks ago, the project has taken some hits over the design and size, since its historic designation allows it to evade the town’s 45-room hotel limit bylaw. Some residents have expressed outrage over the plan to demolish the Searles building itself, which was given a historic designation last year. The property is under contract with Riverschool Redevelopment LLC, now owned by Iredale Mineral Cosmetics LLC CEO Jane Iredale.

The complex off Bridge and Church Streets that includes Searles and the former Bryant Elementary School was abandoned by the Berkshire Hills Regional School District about 10 years ago, when the district found that the price of renovating those schools were prohibitive. The district instead built two new schools on Monument Valley Road adjacent to the Monument Mountain Regional High School campus.

A large crowd attended the Planning Board session that addressed the proposed hotel.
A large crowd attended the Planning Board session that addressed the proposed hotel. Photo: Heather Bellow

At both Wednesday’s Design Advisory Committee presentation, and last night’s Planning Board hearing, the project’s engineer, architects, and owners Jane Iredale and her husband, Robert Montgomery explained that they had looked and looked for ways to renovate the building and found the same cost and use issues as the school district had. Two other hotel developers, including a chain, considered Searles and turned away. The last developer, New Jersey-based Canus Corp., dropped its proposed project, leaving Iredale and Montgomery with the property and a $600,000 promissory note to the town, which they made good on last year.

Iredale’s company, of which Montgomery is COO, spent $14 million to renovate the adjacent Bryant Elementary School building to house the company’s world headquarters. That project ran $10 million over budget, according to Iredale.

“We looked at it very carefully,” Iredale said of Searles, noting that her New York-based architect, Randy Croxton, gave her an estimate of around $25 million to $30 million for any restorative project. “And this was the same architect who told us that Bryant was going to cost four [million].” Everyone laughed.

Jane Iredale, speaking before the Planning Board.
Jane Iredale, speaking before the Planning Board.

“The only way the building can be saved is by gutting it,” she added. “Taking the exterior brick and propping it…gutting the interior…rebuilding it, then putting the brick back on the building. Does that sound like a cheap project?”

“I’m not a developer — we do cosmetics,” said Iredale, who also lives around the corner from the site. “I care about Great Barrington. Do I want a hotel on my doorstep? Not particularly, honestly. But when we looked at the benefit for the town, there are so many advantages to draw people into downtown.”

“There is a reason why this building has sat for 10 years,” said civil engineer Jim Scalise of SK Design Group Inc., at the design advisory presentation. He ticked off everything from life-safety to plumbing and the “uncertainty when you start exposing things.”

The Planning Board’s hearing was mostly to go over site planning basics such as how people will get from the front to the back of the building, how many times per week the food truck will come (3), stormwater management system in a sensitive river area (the Mahidas are working with Rachel Fletcher of Housatonic River Walk and making a donation), wastewater, lighting and traffic. Most of the meeting was spent hashing through these nut and bolt issues.

Most of the design complaints were dealt with at the design advisory meeting the night before, where Hudson, New York-based architect, painter and historic colorist Carl Black explained that he and project architect, Michael McKeown of Amherst’s BMA Architectural Group took pains to subtly adhere to the true Searles structure in its original form, since it was changed over the years.

A rendering of the original Searles High School, before additions and modifications.
A rendering of the original Searles High School, before additions and modifications.

“What [the hotel] is replacing is not a historic building by definition,” Black said, explaining that the hotel was modified over the years. The new hotel will be a blend of Georgian, “strict Queen Anne” and American Federal architecture with a porch thrown on. “George Washington put one on Mount Vernon,” Black said, though “I would have fought tooth and nail not to have a porch,” if the hotel were to be accurately “grounded in history.”

Black also explained that the hotel rendering shows only monochromatic color, where he intends to make subtle “value gradations” just as he did at the Bryant School.

Apparently, Black is a true artist. After a long spiel about authentic Georgian coloring and increments of color value, he said, “It’s hard to know what’s going to happen; I have to really be careful.”

Iredale said she worked closely with the Mahidas to achieve a “harmonious cluster of buildings.”

 In a derelict classroom in the current school building, a clock dangles from its moorings.
In a derelict classroom in the current school building, a clock dangles from its moorings. Photo: Jonathan Hankin

That monochromatic computerized rendering was somewhat bloodless, and may have contributed to angst over the project when it first hit the press. It didn’t help to learn the clapboards would be a “wood fiber product,” and the roof, a slate imitation. One gentleman stood up and said that while it would be “great to have a hotel there, the project falls short of what the town deserves.”

Design Advisory member and architect Stephan Green wished the hotel would sit closer to Bridge Street to encourage a “pedestrian connection” and “engender more charm” like The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, and The Curtis in Lenox.

“It would be a great thing for Great Barrington to do that,” he added. “Walking on the street is a diminishing asset [in town].”

Design member Steve Dietemann, an architect, said he wished for more “playfulness” in the proposal, like what had been done with the Bryant building.

At the planning board, Sharon Gregory, a former Iredale Mineral Cosmetics analyst and town finance committee chair, wondered if there could be compromise by saving the main building only. “I like the project and I know the town needs economic development.”

Board Chairman Jonathan Hankin was done with his lighthearted manner for the evening. “Are you proposing to buy this?” he said, addressing Gregory. “Because this has been looked at. What you’re talking about is a fantasy — what we have here is real proposal.”

This was the point where reality kicked in about a building that is steadily succumbing to decay and neglect, not to mention vandalism, one that Iredale must continuously monitor, struggling to keep out graffiti artists and drug users.

Paul Ivory, chair of the Historic Commission.
Paul Ivory, chair of the Historic Commission.

It was time for the board to make its decision, and a debate over the language in the bylaw that was written by the board ensued over the meaning of the word “redevelop.”

“We wrote these words,” said board member Jack Musgrove. “We said reuse or redevelop. I thought when we wrote [redevelop], we were envisioning bulldozing and starting over. I don’t believe this project is in violation of the bylaw.”

Musgrove also said he did not think it would set a precedent. “The market’s going to dictate — there’s not room for another 95 room hotel…I’d rather have those mills [in Housatonic] redeveloped with a hotel than have them fall into the river.”

Malcolm Fick said he liked the project, that “it’s a game-changer for the town,” but he didn’t like both the precedent he said would be set by a green light to tear down a historic structure, nor the loophole that allows the 45-room limit to be “nullified” by a historic designation, which the Mahidas acquired last summer.

“He got the historical designation knowing he couldn’t rehabilitate the building,” said a visibly angry Claudia Ryan, from the audience.

Historical Commission Chairman Paul Ivory was incensed by what he called a “hidden gotchas” in the bylaw, which he said the commission “enthusiastically endorsed because we thought it would save historic buildings.” Ivory said Searles designer Henry Vaughan was an architect of some importance, and he feels strongly the building should be saved.

Bobby Houston (standing),,
Bobby Houston (standing). Seated are project architect Michael McKewon and Claudia Ryan. Photo: Heather Bellow

From the audience, Bobby Houston called the plan to tear down Searles “bait and switch, a loud fierce shock to the town,” and said he wanted the board to work with Mahida to alter the plans.

“We have to be realistic in terms of what’s possible,” Hankin responded.

Like Hankin, the Mahidas’ attorney, Ed McCormick, of McCormick, Murtagh & Marcus, had also retired his convivial manner.

“What’s going to happen to this building?” he said. “Is it is going to sit there for another 10, 20 years? Is it going to be detrimental to the Iredale Mineral property? Yeah. How would you like to have multimillion dollar building and have this place next to it? Here’s an opportunity for Great Barrington and we’re arguing over what one word means.”

Iredale’s attorney, Lucy Prashker of Cain Hibbard & Myers, stood, and appeared to decimate much of the remaining anxiety by reminding everyone in the room how it had come to this proposal. In 2010 the town sold the entire site to Riverschool, she said, “knowing that the redevelopment was to be done in phases,” with Bryant as phase one. “Phase two was to redevelop the rest of the place in a commercially viable way.”

Lucy Prashker
Lucy Prashker

“I don’t think the risk is as you fear,” Prashker added, of the concern over the precedent that might be set. She went to explain that the former Riverschool developer (Paul Rabinovitch of Canus Corp.) left Iredale Mineral Cosmetics “holding the bag.”

“He disappeared, he gave a note to the town, he defaulted on the note, Iredale guaranteed that note…paid that note,” she said.

Iredale stood, and spoke to the desire among some to reuse the Searles building. “This is truly not viable. If it were, we would made it happen. This [hotel] is viable. It may not be your choice…so be it… I can go back to making cosmetics. We won’t have to worry about it, it will just sit there, because nobody else is going to do anything with it.”

Board member Suzanne Fowle could not get past the 45-room limit, supported by voters in 2014. She voted against the recommendation. “If it were 60 rooms, I’d be in a different place,” she said. She said while she understood the constraints on reusing the existing building, and she supported the idea of a downtown hotel, she felt the room increase was too “dramatic.”

Both Malcolm Fick and Brandee Nelson said they were swayed by Prashker’s argument. Fick, however, remained on the path of strict interpretation over the bylaw issue, and voted against. Nelson voted for, as did Musgrove and Hankin, who said that the 45-room limit bylaw was initially his idea to prevent chains from overtaking the town. He said when he saw hotel developers interested in the Searles site, however, he went looking for a loophole, since spot zoning, he said, is illegal. He found one; a historical designation exempts a developer from the 45-room limit.

“This was a way around it, for tremendous benefit to the town,” he said.

Jack Musgrove said he took note of Iredale’s hard work to preserve the Bryant building as an indication that they really did try to find a way to save Searles. “If the Iredales couldn’t make it work, no one can,” Musgrove said. “Let’s cut our losses and move on.”

The Selectboard will hold a hearing and make its decision November 9 at 7:10 p.m. for 79 Bridge Street, LLC’s request for a special permit.