Permit sought for $24 million upscale hotel to replace dormant Searles SchoolMore Info
Great Barrington — A slightly derelict and vacant section of Bridge Street is about to change, and with it, the economy and breadth of the entire town, as the former Searles School complex is transformed into a $22 to $24 million, 95-room boutique hotel, if the Selectboard grants a special permit.
Over cups of spicy Indian tea, local hotel developers Vijay and Chrystal Mahida unveiled their plans for The Berkshire, a AAA 4-diamond luxury hotel smack in the middle of town, across from the Berkshire Co-op Market, and next to the new world headquarters of Iredale Mineral Cosmetics, LLC, that now occupies the renovated former Bryant Elementary School.
The application from 79 Bridge Street LLC for a special permit to demolish the Searles School and build the hotel hits Town Hall on Tuesday morning (September 22). From there it will pass through the Conservation Commission and Planning Board before it goes to the Selectboard for a final decision.
If you are wondering how a 95-room hotel is even allowed in town, well, that is because of the project’s historic designation, issued by the Great Barrington Historical Commission, which permits it to bypass the town’s 45-room limit bylaw.
The former Searles complex was abandoned 10 years ago after the Berkshire Hills Regional School District decided it would be cheaper to build new schools rather than to renovate the Bryant Elementary School and Searles Middle School campus to bring them into compliance with state standards and regulations. Since June of 2005, the Searles complex has remained vacant, attracting vandals and drug users to its site next to the Housatonic River.
The entire complex was scooped up by the Iredale company, and the Mahidas say they did extensive research before deciding on Searles, and then again before deciding to demolish it and build anew. The reported $850,000 sale to the Mahidas is contingent upon permits being issued by the town.
The Berkshire, the Mahidas say, will be “state-of-the-art everything,” with an indoor pool, fitness room, 5,000-square foot conference room, a bar and upscale farm-to-table restaurant with as much local sourcing as possible.
The hotel will be a modern interpretation of classic New England style, with an interior that is “airy, light, fresh,” said Chrystal Mahida, who will be the owner the hotel that her husband says is “close to her heart” in the Mahida family’s local hospitality empire. Details will be “thoughtful,” say both Mahidas, a word they use to describe the entire process so far, and the way it will continue, with an estimated opening date of Spring 2017, depending on the length of the permitting process.
They say they are patient. They want to get this just right.
The Mahidas have been busy, in what Vijay Mahida sees as a snowball effect. Years ago they started with the Monument Mountain Inn, later creating the Day’s Inn on South Main Street, and in 2004 built the Comfort Inn off Stockbridge Road. Along with Vijay Mahida’s brother Pravin, they have another venture in Lenox, and also are poised to open their latest hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn in Pittsfield, in back of Guido’s Fresh Marketplace.
But The Berkshire will not be part of a chain. The Mahidas say the town doesn’t need anymore of these; the new growth in the hotel sector is amenity-driven, targeted to people who want – and can afford — a boutique lodging experience as much as the destination town itself. They are not looking to compete with other hotels or bed and breakfasts, including their own. By “diversifying the market,” Chrystal Mahida says, they will reach people looking for that experience who might otherwise just pass on through the town. They envision a $200 to $600 per night room rate.
They say they have heard of New Yorkers who bypass Great Barrington and drive straight through the Berkshires on their way to Manchester, Vermont’s Equinox Hotel, a boutique resort. The Mahidas want to stop them from going any farther than Great Barrington, where on foot they can eat, hike and be entertained to their heart’s delight.
“Throughout history,” Vijay Mahida said, “Great Barrington has always had a vibrant downtown, and one component of this was the boutique hotel.” Indeed, there was the Berkshire Inn, which burned down in 1965; there was Barrington House, and another in the building on the corner of Main and Bridge.
“We looked at the market, and looked at what the family can do to bring uniqueness to town,” he said.
“We’re looking at what doesn’t exist here right now,” Chrystal Mahida said. “It’s a niche.”
And, she adds, the hotel will “complement the transition that we’re going through with downtown construction.”
The idea started brewing in Vijay Mahida’s mind years ago when Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center Executive Director Beryl Jolly suggested an “upscale” hotel. No wonder the idea of tourist foot traffic around town — without the parking strain — could easily appeal to someone in Jolly’s position, not to mention all the merchants who would benefit. Some have thanked him “for investing that much money,” downtown. All the positive feedback has “pleasantly surprised” him and gives him “encouragement” to move forward, he says.
The town might also be licking its chops at the estimated $400,000 in annual tax revenue on a project that requires zero taxpayer money. “We’re using our own money,” Vijay Mahida said. “We are not asking the town to give us any tax break, as other developers have asked of towns.”
Twenty-five or so new jobs will be created by the hotel.
Mahida, who came to the Berkshires from India about 20 years ago without a penny in his pocket or English on his tongue, says he and his wife are “responsible developers.” He says it earnestly, without a hint of grandiosity.
“We live here, our kids go to school here, and I make my living doing business in the community,” he says, noting all the research that went into the project, and also the involvement of Jane Iredale and her husband, Iredale CEO Bob Montgomery. Design approval was required from Iredale as part of the sale agreement. Iredale and Montgomery, for instance, recommended the Mahidas use their historical colorist, Carl Black, a Hudson, New York, painter. And Black will collaborate with the hotel’s designer, BMA Architectural Group out of Amherst, New Hampshire. Attention to these details, Mahida says, will “honor the history.”
The historical aspect is something that might raise a few nostalgic hackles. Some may feel a loss at the old high school’s demise. It was built in 1890s, designed by architect Henry Vaughan, primarily a church architect who designed parts of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. But Searles was the first school building Vaughan had designed. The separate gym building, added in the 1930s, is where the town voted before the new fire station was built.
The Mahidas went before the town’s Historical Commission in February to begin the process of historical designation that would allow them to bypass the 45-room limit law, and the commission knew from the beginning that a demolition might be in the cards. Chairman Paul Ivory said by phone that the commission can’t endorse the tearing down of an historic structure. “It doesn’t make sense,” Ivory said of a bylaw that allows the razing of a historic building after it was designated historic. The bylaw, he said, is then “toothless, worthless.” Ivory said he didn’t see how the town could approve it, adding that demolition would “distress” the commission, and thought the seller should have found a developer who could make “sensitive reuse” of the edifice.
The Mahidas are not unsympathetic, and they plan to save some elements, like old chalkboards and doors, and use them in the hotel.
“State and federal laws for ADA (American Disabilities Act) compliance make it difficult and expensive to reuse a building,” Chrystal Mahida said. “The design challenge was how to honor the history of the existing building while at same time incorporating ADA, fire and safety, and the safety of all guests.”
There will be some asbestos remediation in annex, but beyond that there are no environmental issues.
The Berkshire will follow a footprint similar to that of the Searles complex, with the gym area dropped from the current level to keep the height of the new building about the same. The area where the back annex building is now will be the site of the pool and fitness area.
While the front of the building will feature welcoming wrap-around-porches, it is that back area that will be the arrival area and parking.
Chrystal Mahida sees The Berkshire as “something special for Great Barrington,” that will complement the other great Berkshire County luxury hotels such as The Red Lion Inn, Wheatley, and Blantyre.
The Mahidas will donate to the Housatonic River Walk, an adjacent asset to their hotel, which Vijay Mahida says is a “blessing.”
And Bridge Street itself is looking at a revival. The $40 million 100 Bridge Street re-development on the old Log Homes site is still going to happen, according to Community Development Corporation of Southern Berkshire Executive Director Timothy Geller. And the Bridge Street bridge is soon to be repaired to increase its weight load.
“You can come, park your car, stay, you can dine one meal or so with us, you can walk downtown to experience everything,” Vijay Mahida says. “We’re not going to hold you hostage to spend all your money with us.”
Mahida also says his company will get it done: “Any project we start, we get it done. We’re getting more experience, we have a great team. If I didn’t believe in this, we wouldn’t have invested in it.”