Hotel site review attracts belligerent crowd to Great Barrington Town HallMore Info
Great Barrington — They came to Town Hall looking for trouble, but the overflowing room of residents opposed to the proposed 95-room hotel on Bridge Street instead found themselves trapped in a three-and-a-half-hour, jargon-heavy Planning Board site-review that dug into tedious minutiae of engineering issues like grading, vehicular circulation, gutter drainage, and stormwater flow calculations.
The people had trouble containing themselves — snickering, giggling and exclaiming at various questions and answers between the board and the hotel developer’s team. Chairman Jonathan Hankin got into a few tussles to keep order, at one point threatening to kick someone out and call the police.
The Planning Board recently recommended, with a 3-2 vote, that the Selectboard, at its November 9 public hearing, issue a special permit to 79 Bridge LLC, local hotel developers Vijay and Chrystal Mahida’s fourth hotel project in South County. The AAA Four Diamond hotel, The Berkshire, if built, will go — with a similar footprint — into the site of what is now the former Searles Middle and High School, under contract with seller Iredale Mineral Cosmetics, LLC.
The $24 million project is criticized for its plan to raze Searles, recently deemed historic, and its wiggle around the 45-room limit bylaw enacted by the town in 2014. Other complaints are to do with its size, proposed architecture, siting, and the use of faux materials. Project supporters say Searles is now derelict, sitting untouched for 10 years and inviting vandalism and drug use after the school district was unable to renovate it and built its new schools near the Monument Mountain High School campus on Route 7. Mahida estimates $450,000 per year in tax revenue to the town, and others say the hotel will be a boon to downtown businesses.
The Planning Board’s site plan review — which in this case will continue on November 12 if the Selectboard issues the permit — is required for all projects, and involves a checklist of environmental, public safety and other engineering issues. It also serves as a brainstorming session to think out details and come up with ideas to improve a project, and often will add conditions to the special permit.
A site plan review, however, leaves no room for public comment unless it is germane to the review. A “citizen’s speak time” was on the agenda for the end of the meeting, as it customarily is. Residents packed the room anyway, standing and sitting on the floor. At the start of the meeting, several residents disdainfully questioned the board as to why the meeting had not been held in a larger space.
Hankin had to remind everyone that the Selectboard’s special permit hearing is the place to voice opinions about the project.
Mahida’s team had made 10 changes to the plan since the last Planning Board hearing, said Attorney Ed McCormick of McCormick, Murtagh and Marcus, and engineer Jim Scalise of SK Design Group, Inc. in Pittsfield went over the changes. Hankin had his own list of details that he said needed to be addressed — things like which way the doors swing for ADA compliance, the location of an ADA room, and what the false chimneys will be made of. “I think we’re entitled to know that,” he said.
Scalise explained, for instance, that he had shifted the entrance location to straighten out the driveway that leads to the back of the building, where the 109 parking spaces will be, but that a large oak tree on Bridge Street “will have to go as a result.” He considered moving it, but it is too close to the sewer system. He said it may be dead in 5 years.
Board member Brandee Nelson said she wanted to keep the tree and realign the entrance. “The mature trees that are in really good shape are important in Great Barrington,” she said to applause.
Scalise then pointed out, along with project landscape designer Craig Okerstrom-Lang, that the hotel is working with Housatonic River Walk and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) to determine the best plantings near and along the river, which runs along the east side of the property. Mahida is making a donation to the River Walk, and also adding more rain gardens to the site. The Conservation Commission, Okerstrom-Lang said, has the final say about plantings.
Okerstrom-Lang, who also designed the Iredale landscape and lighting, explained what species he was considering, and that many are similar to what will be planted on Main Street. A planned row of Aristocrat Pears, a monoculture, worried Hankin, given the failures of the Bradford Pears on Main Street, but Okerstrom-Lang said the Aristocrats are different.
Nelson questioned Scalise about drainage and de-icing in the parking lot, saying she wished porous concrete would be used to add another filter and more flow control for stormwater so close to the river. Scalise said that winter sand will make it challenging to maintain, since porous cement must be cleaned, but Nelson said that as a Four Diamond hotel, “having good solid green credentials” will be a draw for that clientele.
Predictably, discussions about the faux stone made of pre-cast concrete, to be used in a retaining wall, drew snickers from the crowd. “It looks really faux,” Hankin said. Nelson wanted to see samples.
Scalise had moved on to stormwater, and a handful of the audience disappeared.
Scalise moved on to architectural changes to the old gymnasium, and those plans will be ready soon, he said. Pro bono offers by local architects to change the bulk of the hotel’s design did not bear fruit in a meeting with Mahida last week, according to Bobby Houston, who is re-developing the old Dolby Florist site across the river from the proposed hotel. He has been vocal in opposition to the project as currently designed.
And even those board members (Hankin, Nelson and Jack Musgrove) who voted to recommend the project are not thrilled with certain aspects and expressed concern with how the hotel interacts with the street and pedestrians. Hankin wants Mahida to consider a two level balcony on the Bridge Street side, and use trees to accentuate the Bridge Street entrance.
Suzie Fowle and Malcom Fick had both voted against recommending the project, and Fowle last night said she wished the hotel interacted more with the river and East Mountain beyond it.
“You’re expecting a Four Diamond clientele,” she said. “People come to the Berkshires…for a rural experience.” She said she thinks there’s room on the site to turn the building. “It’s an incredible site,” she added.
But Scalise explained that the 100-year floodplain, the site of the parking lot, doesn’t give him much room to change the footprint, since “building in a floodplain requires compensation…it’s frowned upon for so many other reasons.” He added that this issue was already extensively looked at.
And project architect Michael McKeown of BMA Architects said the group wanted the building “energized and interacting with Bridge Street.”
“I don’t know why you all are constrained to the footprint,” Nelson said, adding that she agreed with Fowle that the river is asset. “If you’re knocking [Searles] down and starting fresh, then…go with what feels good at that site.” She said she’d like to see a more “quirky” design. “You have an opportunity to be creative,” she added, drawing more giggles from the back of the room. Nelson later scolded people over laughter in response to her questions about the re-use of brick inside the building.
McKeown explained that one stipulation in the contract with Iredale, the seller, is that views of the river from her company’s adjacent headquarters will not be obscured.
David Carpenter, Director of Administration for the Mahida Family Hospitality Interests, explained that every detail has been closely vetted, given the amount of money involved, to make sure the hotel is “not bankrupt in two years.”
“Why would the Mahidas do that?” he said.
The room lost another handful when Scalise clicked on his wastewater slide.
For those who remained, one word caused alarm: “Hilton.”
Mahida explained that the Hilton corporation will approve his plans so that in future the hotel could “opt into a Hilton reservation system,” and assured the board that there would be “no branding.”
Still, by morning, the word “Hilton” had already spread down Main Street and beyond by residents fuming over the size of light poles and sharp granite curbing installed as part of the Main Street reconstruction project.
Just the mention of a chain hotel may have also prompted an outburst by Bola Granola owner Michelle Miller over the 45-room limit loophole. Hankin told her that her comments were for the Selectboard, which makes the final decision. Indignant, Miller said she had “waited here for two hours.” She said the extensive site-review was “beside the point,” akin to “lipstick on a pig.”
Board member Malcom Fick calmly explained to her that the board had a duty to tackle its eight site review points, and that was its purpose.
Architect Christopher Owen was, however, allowed to interrupt the proceedings because his comments were related to the site review. He echoed Fowle and Nelson, suggesting that the hotel should face the river and mountain, and that floodplain issues can be gotten around. He also said the materials chosen for the retaining wall reminded him of a “19th century prison.” He suggested using ivy on them.
By the time traffic engineer Jon Dietrich from Fuss & O’Neill, a familiar face at Great Barrington public meetings, since it was his firm that had designed the Main Street Reconstruction Project, got up to speak, most of the audience was gone. Dietrich studied six intersections at peak hours assuming full hotel occupancy, he said, and projected an increase in delays at the Bridge Street and Main intersection,
“There will be delays,” he said. “But it will work.”
“I’d prefer vehicular traffic to drug traffic and this could be an improvement,” Hankin quipped, referring to the drug users that are attracted to Searles and its environs, such as the skate park, which are frequented by teens and young people.
Developer Ron Blumenthal popped up and said the traffic study was flawed, partly because it had been done in May. “Summer traffic is almost triple,” he said, noting he had done his own traffic counts for his own business. “It’s a summer town.”
Dietrich disagreed, and when Blumenthal continued to interrupt him, Hankin threatened to kick him out, then offered to call the police.
Five audience members remained. Nelson questioned Scalise about winter ice control, and potential salt runoff. But he told the board that “all sand has salt in it,” and there’s no way around it. He said the hotel parking lot would be sanded and swept in the spring.
By the time “citizen’s speak” rolled around, there were no citizens’ left — only the media and the Mahida hotel team remained.
The site review can be viewed at https://trms.ctsbtv.org/Cablecast/Public/Show.aspx?ChannelID=3&ShowID=14686
Board member Jack Musgrove was not present.