Eagle Mill project clears major hurdle; still awaits upgrade to Lee water system
Lee — After an arduous trek through thickets of state and federal bureaucracy, Eagle Mills developer Jeffrey Cohen believes he may have reached a clearing last week when the National Park Service said he could demolish buildings at the former paper mill, the only way for his $70 million mixed-use development to go forward.
Cohen said the Park Service’s Technical Preservations Services Program said he could tear down “functionally obsolete” and “architecturally insignificant” structures that were going to make developing the vacant site impossible due to “overwhelming remediation requirements,” and their location blocking emergency vehicle from the front of the site, where he plans to build retail and office space, restaurants, a health club and pool open to the public, and 68 units of housing — 80 percent affordable, and the rest market-rate. He also said he has a letter of intent from Main Street Hospitality Group to build a hotel and conference center at the site. The whole development he estimates at around 250,000 to 300,000 square feet.
“This is a big deal,” Cohen said. “We couldn’t find a way to reuse [the buildings] safely and economically…the alternative was to demolish the entire site and replace the historic mill buildings with a series of apartment buildings and retail spaces that would have been significantly larger than the building we proposed to develop.”
It’s also a big deal, Cohen said, because without the federal historic tax credits he will now get — along with state historic credits, for which he has to apply — the project is not “economically feasible.” He further said, “the world understands that, and that’s why federal tax credits exist.”
But Cohen hasn’t completely escaped the obstacle course. The Park Service still has to approve plans specific to historic restoration, like windows and flooring, things determined by the Secretary of the Interior, Cohen said, of what can be “a period of negotiation.” And only after that hurdle is jumped will construction and engineering plans will get fleshed out.
National Park Service’s Brian Goeken, head of the Technical Preservations Services Program, said while “there are parts of the project that might not meet its standards,” the agency “takes into account economic and technical feasibility.”
He further said things may get “dicey” over the town’s inadequate water mains and pressure, which are not good enough to service the town and its fire needs, not to mention a whole new development. The town has asked the state for a MassWorks grant to fix this, but was refused. Town Administrator Bob Nason could not be reached Thursday for comment on any plans the town may have to reapply to the state.
Cohen says if his process moves along successfully, it “would be catalyst for the state to recognize that a real deal is here, and to happen the town must have adequate water supply capacity and pressure to go forward.”
And what happens if the town doesn’t get that money? “Then we have a big problem — it will stop us at some point,” Cohen said, “because the current water system is incapable of delivering sufficient water pressure.” Without the improvement, he added, “none of the other mills could be developed because every one would need its own fire pond. It’s probably physically impossible.”
There are other vulnerable spots, too, particularly with state historic tax credits that require, Cohen says, multiple applications to get the amount needed and originally asked for, which he still might not get. This is unlike the federal credits, which are available immediately.
While he hasn’t yet estimated the taxes the development will add to town coffers, Cohen says this project will give Lee, and Berkshire County, a boost by adding “hundreds of new jobs, affordable housing and economic opportunity” to a mill complex that’s been vacant for 10 years. “Here are places you can work and some affordable places you can actually live in, so you don’t have to move out of Western Mass,” he said, noting that Berkshire Housing Authority will develop the affordable units. “There aren’t any other comparable developments of this size in the area that I’m aware of.”
“We have a long way to go,” he added, and said he couldn’t have made it this far without some path clearing from Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox), Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield), and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (D-Springfield).
“Thank God for Smitty, Ben and Congressman Neal.”