New concept, new look, new life for top of Railroad Street in Great BarringtonMore Info
Great Barrington — As a handful of businesses continue to re-shuffle around town and the dust has settled after Main Street was torn apart and reconstructed last year, very quietly, at the top of Railroad Street, two experienced, successful developers are making plans that may create a radical shift in downtown dynamics.
Ian Rasch and Sam Nickerson of Benchmark Properties I, LLC purchased 47 Railroad St., the former location of two restaurants: Mario’s, Fiori, and Pearl’s.
Rasch and Nickerson, both Great Barrington residents, are taking their combined experience in development and venture capital work in New York to turn the historic and handsome building into a retail and apartment complex that will further enliven the top of Railroad Street.
Here’s how: Rasch said the plan for 47 Railroad St. is to open up the brick wall on the alley side of the building and turn those into five retail spaces. “The alley between Castle and Railroad streets is a dead alley,” Rasch said. “So how do we foster pedestrian-level street activity?”
“We’re essentially gutting it,” Rasch said of the building.
And don’t think, as a landlord, Benchmark will allow yet another bank or real estate brokerage to set up shop there. Rasch says tenants will be “curated,” and he said Benchmark wants those who will “enliven” the area, noting how things have turned a bit sleepy since Martin’s shut down after a kitchen fire and how, before stores open at around 10 a.m., there’s not much happening.
Rasch says something like a juice, wine or coffee bar added to the retail mix might be just the way to perk things up. He is getting “a lot of calls” from interested retailers, he said. But he and Nickerson are in no hurry to do this, he added. They want to find just the right kind of tenants.
The 12 “well-appointed” apartments on the second and third floors, for which Benchmark will build an addition that will double the size of the building, sound like a millennial’s dream with sleek fixtures, shops, and restaurants a stone’s throw away. Benchmark will also build a flat-roof deck on top for tenants, one that can also be rented out for parties. The apartments will be priced on the higher end for one- to two-bedroom rentals, with a dedicated parking space for each apartment in the lot behind the Triplex Cinema. And such apartments, Rasch said, may appeal to those locals who are fed up with the upkeep of the big and old houses in neighborhoods that surround the downtown here.
“I hear, over and over again, interest from people who like the idea of being downtown without the giant house.” Rasch said it was perfect for people who want more “flexibility.”
He said other projects in New York, for example, have appealed to “young professors or empty nesters.”
Rasch and Nickerson have researched the new phenomenon of a rental market with “walkability,” and Rasch says, in Great Barrington, there is “a demand for a small amount that.”
Rasch said baby boomers and millennials — ages 18 to 34 — are “geared toward renting in small urban centers.”
And, according to Benchmark, the same factors that attract these groups also makes such mixed-use developments less risky for investors and lenders.
What pulls in tenants are the “pedestrian-oriented traditional downtowns, walkability, green certification, design excellence, proximity to open space, and access to transit.”
47 Railroad could see tenants by late fall 2017, Rasch said, with construction starting this fall. Benchmark has begun weaving its way through the town’s permitting process with design architect Adam Rolston from Incorporated NYC and local architect, Pittsfield-based SK Design Group.
Rasch grew up in Columbia County, New York, and went to the Rudolf Steiner School in Great Barrington. Before starting Benchmark, he was vice president at Pittsfield-based developer Allegrone Companies. Nickerson moved here several years ago, Rasch said, to send his children to the Steiner School. Before forming Benchmark, Nickerson founded Fairfield, Connecticut, commercial real estate development company Ecos Properties.
Both Rasch and Nickerson have a “passion” for “adaptive reuse” of historic buildings, Rasch said, and decided to pool their resources and experience to up their game of applying “renewable and high design” to their projects.