Great Barrington — Ask any observer: Downtown is a work in motion. Two years ago, the $6 million Main Street reconstruction project finally wrapped up. Then we were told Bridge Street was in line for a major facelift but, for a variety of reasons, that state-funded project has become stalled.
Indeed, one aspect of Bridge Street has been delayed for so long that a multimillion-dollar grant that would pay for the project is in danger of expiring before work can even commence. For this reason, the town planner’s office wants to use a portion of those funds to rehab areas such as Railroad Street on the other side of Main Street.
Town planner Chris Rembold explained to the Great Barrington Selectboard on Monday night that, several years ago, the town had received a so-called MassWorks infrastructure grant from the state to repave Bridge Street and portions of adjacent side streets, and bury sections of overhead utilities in the area of the controversial 100 Bridge Street project. That future site of an affordable housing complex is owned by the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire and will require significant environmental remediation.
Those projects, except for the utility burial, will continue in time for the MassWorks grant to be used. But for a variety of reasons, 100 Bridge Street has been delayed to the point that the $1 million that would have been used to pay for the burial of overhead utilities is in danger of lapsing when the grant expires at the end of June 2019.
“So we’re asking the board to accept the reprogramming of those funds that we had originally allocated for undergrounding those utilities over at 100 Bridge because primarily we don’t believe we will have time to finish any design with National Grid,” Rembold explained. “And we don’t believe we’ll be able to coordinate well enough with CDC.”
Rembold told the Edge that other aspects of the Bridge Street project will continue. The MassWorks grant that will pay for the project was announced with great fanfare in October 2015, when Assistant Secretary of Housing and Community Development Juan Vega stood on the steps of Town Hall along with town and regional officials to deliver the good news.
On Bridge Street, the town will still see newly paved roads and new sidewalks, along with improved drainage and lighting. Portions of School Street and Bentley Road will see similar improvements. This will complement the recently completed $2 million Bridge Street bridge rehabilitation, the cost of which was split between the state and the town as part of a separate funding plan.
Rembold also unveiled additional details of what the town intends to do with the $1 million that would have been used to bury the utilities near 100 Bridge Street: The town had applied for a separate grant to rehab sections of Railroad, Elm and Church streets.
But if the state approves of the preprogramming of $1 million from the Bridge Street MassWorks grant, the above streets will see repavement, as will the parking lots at the top of Railroad Street and the so-called Taconic lot near the Triplex Cinema. Railroad Street will also see new sidewalks.
“The sidewalks on Railroad Street will get a little bit wider, and we’ll put in new curbs and repave,” Rembold said. “We are already discussing the possibility of putting in conduit for high-speed broadband, so were taking those things into account.”
“What type of curbing?” asked selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton.
“Granite, rounded edge,” Rembold replied.
Much laughter ensued as everyone remembered the sharp edges of the granite curbing installed on Main Street in 2015. Those curbs caused an epidemic of punctured tires and created dozens of frustrated motorists whose wallets were lightened as a result.
“We are already discussing the possibility of putting in conduit for high-speed broadband, so were taking those things into account,” Rembold continued.
If installed, the new underground conduits could theoretically be used by Fiber Connect, the locally owned broadband company that recently announced its intention to wire the core of downtown for broadband delivering speeds up to 1 gigabit per second.
“We hope to do the bulk of work in very early spring 2019,” Rembold explained. He said the work will move quickly. “This will not be another Main Street,” he added.
That MassWorks grant was awarded in 2015 as a result of the expected growth, increased traffic and run-off generated by some large proposed developments on Bridge Street that include two slow-moving projects: an 88-room hotel in the former Searles Middle School and the aforementioned planned mixed-use development at 100 Bridge Street.
Those projects will change the face of the Bridge Street corridor, coming as they do on the heels of the redevelopment of the former Bryant Elementary School by Iredale Mineral Cosmetics Inc., which opened its world headquarters there in 2014.
But the Bridge Street improvements have been delayed because, after they were approved, a development company announced a $15 million mixed-use project that includes a new Berkshire Co-op Market.
“We had hoped to go right out and pave Bridge Street right away and then, two years ago now, Powerhouse Square came in and said, ‘Wait, wait. We’ve got a big development,’ so we held everything off,” Rembold explained.
The Lenox-based Benchmark Develpment, the developer and owner of the Powerhouse property, has already begun work on the former Laramee’s dry cleaning building. Workers could be seen Thursday on the roof preparing the structure for its eventual demolition.
Powerhouse Square will also feature retail and office spaces and 22 modern condominiums in the same building as the new market. A new parking lot will go where the Co-op currently sits. The 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 second phase of Powerhouse Square 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. Benchmark officials have declined to venture a guess as to when that would start.
The board approved Rembold’s request to transfer the $1 million in Bridge Street grant funds that were going to be spent on burying utility lines, but the move is subject to approval from the state. Neither Rembold nor town manager Jennifer Tabakin thought it would be a problem.
“MassWorks has indicated that they would be supportive of this,” Tabakin said. “Now we can go back to them and tell them the selectboard has authorized the reprogramming of the money.”
Rembold said work on Railroad, Elm and Church streets, along with the two parking lots, should begin in about 12 months.