Great Barrington Selectboard should not give in to extortion

It all comes down to this: what kind of town do we want to live in?

To the editor:

The last Selectboard meeting was ostensibly a deliberation on a special permit application for a commercial parking lot at 11 School St. The Planning Board, having found that proposed use antithetical to the intent of the Master Plan and the zoning district, sent the Selectboard a unanimous negative recommendation on the project for the first time in at least a quarter of a century.

The meeting revealed there was a reiteration of a threat by a representative of the applicant, after the close of the public hearing, that if the special permit were not granted they would close the former Foster’s lot to the public on nights and weekends. The entire Selectboard acknowledged that this threat, including its potential adverse impact on the Great Barrington Farmers Market, would be a principal deciding factor in their decision.

The reality is that it is an empty threat. Closing the lot provides no benefit to an owner trying to lease 28 vacant offices and would only succeed in alienating virtually everyone in town. This approach was tried unsuccessfully a few years ago by another downtown business with parking for more than 100 cars to protest the lack of patronage from a local nonprofit. It lasted a few weeks, at most, before public pressure made them reverse course and reopen it.

It all comes down to this: what kind of town do we want to live in? Do we want a Selectboard that caves in to extortion or do we want one willing to stand up for our Master Plan and the zoning that the citizens of the town have agreed upon? No one on the Selectboard has even attempted to justify the need for the proposed 38-space private, gated parking lot; all admit it will be a paved empty eyesore at least 75 percent of the time. Only Leigh Davis has dared to compare the community benefit of the proposed parking lot (none) to the benefit of an existing laundromat with two apartments above, or even to mention the potential that will be permanently lost for redevelopment of a mixed-use building with six, or possibly significantly more, apartments in this downtown location where the zone’s stated intent is to reduce the use of personal automobiles, encourage pedestrian traffic, shared parking, infill and redevelopment of mixed-use buildings, and to maintain or increase the supply of affordable dwelling units.

No. The applicant, one of three different LLCs in Great Barrington controlled by Philips International—with a Madison Avenue address and over 250 real estate holdings across the country—owns the Berkshire Block at 321 Main and recently acquired the former Foster’s parking lot. They have made no case for why they need 79 parking spaces, 41 at Foster’s plus the 38 proposed, for the 28 small to medium sized offices they have created in an historic downtown building where, as in all of downtown, there is no parking requirement.

Their argument instead has been to threaten that they will close off the Foster’s lot to the public, evenings and weekends, if they are not granted their special permit. Certainly a message from the citizens of our town warning of a potential boycott of the tenants of the Berkshire Block, if the lot were to be closed, would send a clear, strong message to the Select Board, the applicant and all prospective tenants (they have none to date) that this strong-arm tactic is not appropriate in our town.

The Selectboard professes to be deliberating what appears to be a foregone conclusion that they will grant a special permit to an odious project detrimental to our town solely as a result of this threat from the applicant. One member has an appearance of a conflict of interest which could jeopardize the town’s legal standing in granting the permit. As dark money increasingly pervades and attacks our democracy on all levels, it is more important than ever for citizens to speak out. Let the Selectboard know that this spineless behavior is not acceptable for an official who has been elected to protect and promote the best interests of the town:

Steve Bannon:     scbannon@gmail.com

Ed Abrahams:      edforgb@gmail.com

Bill Cooke:            billcooke.gb@gmail.com

Kate Burke:          kateburke528@gmail.com

Leigh Davis:         ldavis@townofgb.org

 

Jonathan Hankin

Great Barrington

The writer is a member of the Great Barrington Planning Board.