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Terry Cowgill
Manville Street is a quiet residential dead-end street off of South Main Street in Great Barrington.

Manville Place development pitched as effort to address ‘absolute crisis’ in Great Barrington rental market

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By Wednesday, Jul 11, 2018 News 13

Great Barrington — A proposal by a local developer for a rental complex in a quiet neighborhood on a South Main Street side street has been met with opposition, but it appears there is little neighbors can do to stop the project, which the developers say was spurred on by “an absolute crisis” in the local rental market.

Framework Properties, which most recently completed the 47 Railroad Street project in downtown Great Barrington, has plans for three 15-unit apartment buildings with retail spaces at the end of Manville Street, a short dead-end road with a handful of homes. Most of the homes on the south of the street abut the Beechwood Apartments on Silver Street. The apartments would be one-, two- and three-bedroom and would start at $1,200 per month, a few hundred dollars less than 47 Railroad.

Ian Rasch and Sam Nickerson, center, explain Manville Place, a 45-unit market-rate complex proposed for Great Barrington’s Manville Street, during a neighborhood meeting held July 10 at Construct Inc. on Mahaiwe Street. At left is Selectman Bill Cooke. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Ian Rasch and Sam Nickerson of Framework and its sister company, Alander Construction, held a neighborhood meeting last night at Construct Inc., a housing and workforce development organization headquartered on Mahaiwe Street.

The neighbors, 12 of whom detailed their concerns in a recent letter to the Edge, attended the session. Those worries include increased traffic, more noise, loss of “mature trees,” and the inevitable headaches caused by construction and additional residents as a result of what Rasch and Nickerson are calling “Manville Place.”

Last night they learned the history that led to their current plight. Town planner Chris Rembold told them that, two years ago, voters approved a change in zoning in that neighborhood, which includes not only Manville but Pope, Mahaiwe and Silver streets.

See Edge video below of the Manville Place community meeting in its entirely:

Before the change, the neighborhood was zoned for business (officially B-2), which would have encouraged commercial strip development and which would have opened the door to far more intrusive projects than Manville Place.

“We thought, if that happened, it would be a real detriment to South Main Street,” Rembold said. “That was a primary consideration in rezoning.”

This was one of the issues the town attempted to address in 2011 when the decision was made to write a new master plan. Click here to see Volume One of the award-winning master plan and here to see Volume Two.

“Over the course of two to three years, we did the plan whose goals are to preserve green spaces, open space, farms, ridgelines … but at the same time preserve and reinforce the village centers and residential neighborhoods that make us such a strong community of neighbors,” Rembold explained.

A home and a vacant lot at the end of Manville Street in Great Barrington. The home and two others will be demolished as part of the Manville Place project. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The Manville neighborhood had been zoned for business since at least 1960. That means the homes within the district are nonconforming. Those homeowners would have to go through the expensive and time-consuming process of obtaining a special permit to build an addition or even add a deck.

A special permit might not sound like a big deal, but it definitely is. Special permit applications are often complicated and difficult for the layman to complete. So in order to build a simple $1,500 deck, a homeowner might have to hire a lawyer or consultant to complete the application and represent the homeowner before the zoning board of appeals, which would hold a hearing, consider the application and grant the special permit, attach conditions to it, or reject it altogether—all while the lawyer’s meter is running. That could double or triple the price of a small project such as a deck.

“We thought that was a real problem,” Rembold said.

The town needs development—sometimes characterized by the state Department of Revenue as “new growth“—in order to pay for such things as schools and infrastructure, the costs of which march inexorably upward. But it wants to discourage unsustainable or undesirable sprawl. And it wants to support walkable neighborhoods and green spaces.

So Rembold and the planning board proposed a new zoning designation for the Manville neighborhood that would encourage mixed-use development rather than “commercial sprawl.”

The mixed-use transitional zone (MXD) was created. Click here to see the description of the zone in the town’s zoning bylaws. Its stated goal was to “preserve and enhance the mix of residential and retail uses, to maintain the existing character of the area, and to bring existing uses and structures more into compliance with the Zoning Bylaw, thereby facilitating a variety of business and housing opportunities within walking distance of the Town’s downtown core.”

The town zoning map shows the neighborhood in question that would be affected by the Manville Place project. Image courtesy Town of Great Barrington

The new bylaw was approved with little resistance at the 2016 annual town meeting. It made mixed-use development allowable by-right in MXD rather than by special permit. Indeed, another new zone was created at this year’s annual town meeting in May. Much of State Road, which had also been zoned B-2, was rezoned as B-2X.

The master plan also supports so-called “infill development,” which is typically defined as “increased density of development, and the adaptive re-use of existing buildings,” which results “in efficient utilization of land resources, more compact urban areas, and more efficient delivery of quality public services.” Rembold added that Manville Place would use existing road, water and sewer infrastructure—in contrast to the suburban model of developing outwards and building new infrastructure.

Perhaps the most dramatic and illuminating part of the community meeting was Nickerson’s discourse on rental housing in Great Barrington. He said when Framework first proposed the 47 Railroad Street project, which included only 13 market-rate apartments, he learned that it was the first building permit taken out in the town for a structure containing more than four apartments since 1990.

Nickerson said he and Rasch have visited several rental complexes in Great Barrington over the last two years and characterized some of them as “shockingly disgusting.”

“So a whole generation went by and nothing was built; its been an entire generation of disinvestment,” Nickerson said. “What has happened in our community is that, for rental housing, it’s just an absolute crisis.”

Former Great Barrington Finance Committee Chair Sharon Gregory makes a point during the July 11 community meeting about the Manville Place project in Great Barrington. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Consequently, Nickerson added, landlords have no incentive to renovate or otherwise improve their properties because “everything is full.”

“As a community, we’re going to be in catch-up mode for quite a while, especially since the demographics are changing, as well. We’re getting an aging population.”

Part of the Manville Place plan was to have a retail component. In an earlier meeting with residents, Rasch and Nickerson had suggested a coffee shop or a gym. But the residents at last night’s meeting were unenthusiastic about either, mostly because of increased traffic. Plus, there is a Dunkin Donuts just around the corner on South Main.

Nickerson told the group that he and Rasch were primarily interested in the housing component anyway. Rembold said if the proposal included only apartments, then a special permit night be needed since it would not be considered mixed-use.

Residents reiterated their concerns expressed in the aforementioned letter to the Edge. Some wanted the number of apartment units reduced from 45 to something considerably smaller. Others were concerned that preliminary plans only called for 45 parking spots, the same as the number of units.

Both Rembold and Rasch assured them that they would have plenty of opportunities to speak up during the site plan approval process with the planning board. That process will include a presentation of architectural renderings and at least one public hearing examining such issues as traffic studies, lighting, parking, security, landscaping, drainage and utilities.

Rasch said he and Nickerson will likely file the site plan with Rembold’s office “within the next month or so.”

“What we’re committed to is trying to create a project that we think fits within the context of that neighborhood,” said Rasch, who encouraged neighbors to attend the planning board hearings. “We don’t want to have some huge monolithic building there that has no rhyme or reason to everything around it.”

About 20 residents of the Manville Road neighborhood attended, along with town officials including selectmen Steve Bannon, Bill Cooke and Ed Abrahams, and planning board members Brandee Nelson, Pedro Pachano and Jeremy Higa.

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13 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Karen Smith says:

    Oh geez ….what should we do? Thoughtful, known entity in town, develop housing, follows the law and the master plan? NIMBY time !!!when are the citizens going to get with the fact that a municipality can only raise money two ways. #1 taxes are raised on the existing base. #2 the tax base is increased ,very simple.
    We need housing and we need to increase our base as the cost of everything will go up. This is a problem of the prosperous and the level of whining needs to subside.

    1. Laura C says:

      What we need is affordable housing, not apartments that start at $1200.00 which I am sure is for a one bedroom. In my
      opinion that is not affordable. You might be able to afford it but a lot of people in town can’t. How about the people living in the homeless shelter (where the meeting was held). This area does not need a development like this.

      1. Art A says:

        The reality is that the town needs both, badly. Oh, and whenever any entity has tried to even broach the subject of affordable housing in the last 15 years, NIMBY is even more prevalent.

    2. Ivan Kruh says:

      As a resident of Manville Street, I can see how this might seem like a NIMBY response to you, Karen. The truth is that very few if any of the residents on Manville Street are saying, “Not in my backyard.” We are saying, “If you are going to do this in our backyard, please be respectful of your neighbors, the quality of our lives, and the personal financial investments we have made in our homes.” 45 one- to three-bedroom units at the end of this dead end street is simply too much. An initial traffic study reported during this meeting indicated a massive increase in automobile traffic on the street, all doing one thing: waiting in line to enter South Main Street. Any reasonable person can see that the proposal of 45 new parking spaces will not adequately manage the need for parking by new residents in the development. The Town’s Master Plan allows for buildings of 8-units by right — not 15. We are simply asking these developers, driven as they may be by profit margins, to be good neighbors.

  2. Charlotte A Underwood-Miller says:

    If Great Barrington doesn’t do something about parking, it will die. Most of the parking spaces are reserved in some way, and the 2-hour parking is absurd. If a person comes in to eat and shop, it’s not enough time. All the spaces now reserved for 47 RR were spaces where those of us who work in town could park. Berkshire Bank has reserved a ridiculous number of spots. No parking at the church……. Where to go??????? This MUST BE ADDRESSED!

  3. John says:

    Absolutely laughable. The town does not need “new growth” to result yet additional revenue.

    The town needs to manage its spending problem and set priorities. It is spending like a drunken sailor.

    1. Tom Blauvelt, Chair Great Barrington Finance Committee says:

      Hi John,
      Not sure what you mean by a spending problem or setting priorities. Since fiscal year 2012 the Town’s operating budget (not counting the assessment for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District) has increased on average of less then 2%. The town also has a very rigorous planning process governing capital spending. Perhaps you should attend the budget hearings to gain a greater understanding of the process.

      1. Jerry says:

        I think John is technically right. My understanding is that drunken sailors tend to increase their spending by about 2% annually.

      2. John says:

        Hiding behind a process is a major part of the problem. The end goal is all to often forgotten.
        The private sector continuously executes cost down both efforts and projects for goods and services. The net result is decreasing costs over time. Look at consumer goods, airline service.
        Sadly the government had no incentive to become efficient. The population of Great Barrington remains essentially the same for decades now, yet look at the government expansion.
        The population at monument mountain high school continues to dwindle, yet the school expenditures do not follow.
        The property tax burden is encroaching the 2 1/2 % mark… the cumulative tax burden of town, state, and federal continues to increase as a percentage.
        (Although it is a welcome change to see a slight dip at the federal level, thank you Mr President)
        Yes, spending like a drunken sailor. How much did the fire house cost?
        Lifelong citizens of Great Barrington are certainly not the priority as they are taxed out of their homes.

    2. Tom Blauvelt says:

      Hi John,
      Not sure what point you are trying to make. No one hides behind a process but we all must follow the law. All spending decisions are made at town meeting after numerous public hearings with the Selectboard and Finance Committee. Sadly most of these budget meetings are not well attended by the voters. Please get involve and help us. I don’t know about drunken sailors but I do know that the Selectboard, Finance Committee and Town Manager constantly look for ways to operate more efficiently and spend wisely. For your information the Fire Station came in ahead of schedule and under budget.

  4. Mary Ellen Foster says:

    Using Construct to host this meeting with neighbors (although convenient) and sighting the State Road affordable housing development as an example of quality planning, seemed a bit deceptive. The units in this proposed development, to date, are going to be market rate and not considered affordable. I see no NIMBYism here. Simply residents concerned for the quality of life in their neighborhood.

    The Manville Street residents need to ask the developers whether or not there will be a clause in the rental apartment leases that specifically forbids a tenant to short term sublease their unit to someone else. In other words, using the units for short term rentals such as an Air B&B weekend rental. Some tenants may go to Florida for the winter but will the apartment remain vacent? Often condo developments will include this stipulation in their covenants.

    Just a thought.

  5. Laura C says:

    How come the article in the Berkshire Eagle this morning stated that the apartments would run between $1650 to $1850 per month and this article states $1200 per month? Even $1200 is a lot for “affordable housing”. The only ones benefiting from this will be the weekenders who want to stay here a few days a week and won’t shop in town during the week. That way they won’t have to invest in buying a house.

  6. Karen O'Brien Kavanagh says:

    My parents had a one-story house built on 17 Manville Street that my father later expanded to a two -story house.

    I moved away as a child but always thought of Manville Street as my home and the place where I grew up, and where my friends lived. It was an idyllic place for a kid.

    While I understand that change is inevitable I hope that the town will listen to the people of this neighborhood and insist that the developer reduce the number of units so that the scale of the development doesn’t overpower this residential dead end street.

    Parking will be a major issue. The project shouldn’t be approved unless the developer can provide adequate on site parking for tenant, visitors, and service people. The street is too narrow to allow street parking on both sides and provide for the free flow of two-way traffic, especially in winter weather. And, most importantly, it infringes on the current property owners quality of life.

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