Great Barrington Selectboard endorses 100 Bridge St. project
Great Barrington — The Selectboard last night (February 8) moved plans for a $45 million mixed-use development closer to getting the permit it needs to begin remediating and developing a polluted 8-acre slice of land in the heart of town, one that is just down the street from where a former school may be turned into an 88-room upscale hotel.
The Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire’s (CDC) plans for 100 Bridge Street, a retail, housing and community open space project next to the Housatonic River, got a unanimous recommendation from the Selectboard but only after it imposed a number of conditions after various concerns were raised. The CDC requires a permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), for the project as a whole.
Current plans call for an anchor store along Bridge Street, and the CDC has talked for several years with the Berkshire Co-op Market about its possible expansion into that space. The Co-op, according to both board president Dan Seitz and Geller, is still in the game but keeping its “options open.” The rest of the site will see a total of 81 units of both market rate (36) and affordable (46) housing, other retail and office space, a center green with an amphitheater, and a park-like setting on what will be the restored western bank of the Housatonic River.
Presently a blighted, overgrown field at the edge of a residential neighborhood and commercial zone, the former New England Log Homes site is contaminated mostly with dioxins that CDC now plans to seal off — or “cap” — after attempting to bioremediate it in 2014, a process shut down by the state over several issues. Geller says the soil will be capped incrementally as each section is built.
“There are four basic uses [of the site],” Geller said, “and we know it’s not all going to happen at once. It will be built out in phases, no question…I don’t know how it’s going to be phased at this point.” Geller added that three-quarters of the development is “market driven, so the market will determine that.” He said one section of market-rate housing could “happen tomorrow,” and the affordable housing piece is “quite independent…if nothing else happened, that could go.”
He also said with a commitment from a large business — which he says must be “local” — the anchor building “could also happen right away.”
“The CDC economic value system is based on local ownership,” Geller noted. “We will not have businesses on this site that are not locally owned.”
It will be a “live/work community,” he added, “with 81 housing units on site and people walking everywhere. This is the quintessential smart growth walk-able 21st century community.”
Economic development promised by both the 100 Bridge and hotel projects on Bridge Street helped the town get a $2.1 million state grant to work on roads and utilities along this corridor, and convinced the state to pay for an upgrade to the Bridge Street bridge. Because of the amount of affordable housing at 100 Bridge, CDC was able to apply for a permit under the state’s Comprehensive Permit Law, or statute “40B,” designed to encourage developers to add affordable housing units into their projects. At least 20 to 25 percent of units must be affordable in order to qualify for a more flexible permitting process that only goes to the ZBA, and avoids some of the hassles, time and expense of getting permits under more restrictive regulations, from the other town boards. Town officials say affordable housing is desperately needed.
The 100 Bridge project isn’t an easy one to pull together. It involves puzzle pieces like cleaning up carcinogenic soil, managing both public ($6 million) and private ($38 million) money, new utilities, traffic and parking issues, to name a few.
And as excited as the town is to eventually see a unsightly brownfield transformed into a happy town gathering place that will hit the tax rolls to the tune, Geller says, of around $400,000 per year, board members were worried about just how CDC was going to pull this thing off.
“Is there a possibility that the state money won’t come through [for affordable housing] and we’ve just given you 40B [zoning] for market rate [housing]?” asked board member Ed Abrahams.
Geller said it was unlikely, that “the state loves this project.”
“Why would I want to invest in something that’s going to be a construction zone for years and years,” board vice chair Steve Bannon wondered, about the market rate housing.
“You can contain construction like you can contain anything else,” Geller replied. Larry Boudreau, Director of Land Development at Chazen Companies, CDC’s planning and engineering firm, said areas would be fenced off with some parking and a driveway added. “But you’re right.” he said. “That’s a real question that will have to be dealt with by the market.” He said the river and views, however, make it a “unique site.”
Geller estimated the project would take three to five years to complete.
“The hardest part is getting started,” Broudreau said. “Once you start, it could go faster.”
Board member Dan Bailly was worried about how, if outer areas are built up first, construction will have to cross through those areas and still have clean soil.
Abrahams fretted about a scenario in which the common area could descend into decrepitude of “crime and ickyness,” and said he thought some of the buildings were “ugly.”
“This is not my area of expertise,” he said, “but it could be an issue that the affordable housing is up against the sewer plant and not the market rate. You can’t have a separate entrance for the poor people as they do in New York.”
This wasn’t the first time this issue had come up at a hearing. It had been raised at the ZBA’s first hearing about 100 Bridge.
The state agency that oversees affordable housing, Geller said, “is giving us latitude.” He said usually market and rate and affordable housing have to be “indistinguishable and mixed in.” In this case, he said, these are “two very different kinds of housing and owernship structures.” One is a condominium, the other, an LLC partnership that owns the affordable housing. “Very different animals…and that’s why the latitude.”
“I understand it doesn’t have to be indistinguishable,” Bannon said, “but does it have to be so obvious?”
Geller said eventually it wouldn’t be. “It’s evolving and we’ve been listening to a lot of the feedback. The last thing I want to do is be responsible for a project that ghettoizes the affordable housing.”
Bailly wanted to know what would happen to the rest of the site if the affordable housing, up against the sewer plant, is built first. “Is it just going to be a giant dirt pile?” he said.
Geller said there would be a big fence and a seeded field.
And if the Co-op doesn’t drop anchor in the development, Abrahams wondered what other large local business would do so. “It’s great you want to go local, but that will be hard without the Co-op,” he said.
A discussion ensued about what is considered “local” in this tri-state corner of Massachusetts, and how far away the line will be drawn.
Geller said CDC has had “substantive conversations with other businesses that are slightly smaller than the Co-op, but get us in the ballpark. As soon as project is permitted it becomes more attractive.”
After some handwringing over parking and potential traffic impacts, particularly since it is a thorny issue for the hotel developers down the road, Tom Johnson of Chazen soothed the board with his finding that 100 Bridge won’t “adversely affect the two intersections” at both Bentley Street, and Main, and said the pedestrian-heavy nature of the site will help. Johnson said the hotel traffic forecast was included in his study.
But to settle nerves over an area of town that, if all goes as planned, will expand commerce southeast from Main Street, the board put eight conditions on their positive recommendation, all based on each of the concerns raised, including having a local anchor business and making sure the market rate and affordable housing have a “similar feel and aesthetic.”
Geller pointed out that the ZBA will have to approve any substantial changes to the plan made after they approve this one, should they decide to.
The ZBA hearing is February 17 at 7:30 pm, Town Hall. The Planning Board will make a recommendation on Thursday, February 11, 7pm, Town Hall.