Lee — Lee is an up-and-coming town. And it will rise even higher if a Berkshire County developer’s dream of reusing the former Price Chopper property comes to fruition.
Michael Charles and Brian Cohan, principals of the Lenox-based Benchmark Development, are looking to demolish the former downtown supermarket on West Park Street, which closed on July 29 of last year, and build a mixed-use development that includes rental apartments and retail.
Benchmark is also the developer of Powerhouse Square, a $15-million mixed-project on Bridge Street in downtown Great Barrington. Construction on Powerhouse Square began last year. More on that later.
In an Edge interview, Charles said Benchmark is under contract to buy the 17,000 square-foot brick structure on 1.5 acres from Golub Corporation, Price Chopper’s parent company.
According to assessor’s maps, the northern one-third of the Price Chopper building actually lies on a portion of the property on which the Lee post office sits on Consolati Way. The main Price Chopper property has vehicular access from both Consolati Way and West Park Street.
“We’re designing a similar project to the one in Great Barrington,” Charles said. “Downtown Lee is like Great Barrington’s. It’s a vibrant New England downtown. It’s where people want to live.”
Charles emphasized that the concept is in its early stages and that there is no formal proposal yet before the town, so he was reluctant to reveal too many details. Benchmark’s designers are hard at work and the company has hired consultants to perform an environmental assessment on the property.
“There’s lots of work to be done,” Charles said, adding that he has had some informal conversations with town officials and other “stakeholders” about the concept. “We are starting the process of garnering support.”
Unlike, the Great Barrington project, Charles says the plan for Lee is to build rental units instead of condominiums. But like the Great Barrington project, which will serve as the new home of the Berkshire Co-op Market, the Lee concept includes a food store.
This will no doubt come as a relief to the denizens of downtown Lee, which includes an elderly and immigrant population that does not own cars and depended on the Price Chopper for most of their food shopping needs. The nearest market is now the Big Y near the intersection of Routes 20 and 102, on the other side of the busy Mass Pike interchange.
“We are definitely considering a food store,” Charles added. “We see that as a major component, though probably not as large as the Price Chopper. We’ve seen that there’s a void created.”
Jeff Lowenstein, a community organizer for Berkshire Interfaith Organizing, a Pittsfield-based community organizing group, had been searching for a new tenant that might be interested in opening a food store in the space. BIO felt the store served a vulnerable population. Lowenstein told The Edge he and the BIO team had communicated with officials from Price Rite and ALDI, but so far had been unable to secure a firm commitment from either.
Lowenstein said BIO has spoken with Benchmark Development representatives and “is excited about the possibility of a neighborhood grocery store returning to the location.” He added that BIO plans to meet with Benchmark representatives “to tell them about BIO’s research on grocery stores and community needs as part of our Lee Price Chopper Closing Campaign.”
“We continue to work for a new downtown grocery store in Lee, and are hopeful that the Benchmark Development project will provide an avenue to accomplish this,” Lowenstein said.
The Price Chopper project also comes at a time when downtown Lee is going through something of a renaissance. Developer Jeffrey Cohen has a $60 million plan to redevelop the historic Eagle Mill on West Center Street.
Cohen and his company, Mill Renaissance LLC, are building a large hotel and a mix of more than 100 affordable and market-rate rental apartments. In addition, Cohen plans to open a public market or food “marketplace” as part of the complex.
The vision for the marketplace includes food kiosks and stalls featuring a variety of cuisine and perhaps a space for entertainment — not unlike a mini-version of Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace.
And there was good news for the Eagle Mill project at the annual town meeting in May. Voters overwhelmingly passed a so-called “smart growth” 40R overlay zone, as permitted by a state law encouraging affordable housing. That measure will streamline the permitting process for Cohen and others with similar proposals.
In an interview, Cohen said he had seen Benchmark’s preliminary plans and thinks they are “very compatible with what we’re doing.”
“There is a large market for market-rate apartments,” Cohen said. “I like the proposal. Market rate apartments enhance the town.”
Cohen thinks the two developments will provide badly needed housing for workers at places such as General Dynamics, Crane Paper and Berkshire Health Systems. He added that he and his team will begin the preliminary process for site plan review with the Lee Planning Board on July 23.
Lee selectman and Planning Board member Tom Wickham, who also announced last week that he is running for the Democratic nomination for state Senate against incumbent Adam Hinds, told The Edge he had heard rumors of a redevelopment of the Price Chopper property but nothing firm.
“This is great news for the town of Lee,” said Wickham, who has also served on the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. “I’m always in favor of getting blighted buildings back on the tax rolls. They drag us down a little bit.”
Wickham said there is a need for more housing downtown because the business climate seems to be improving. In addition, there are retail marijuana outlets that will inevitably come to Lee that will employ perhaps dozens of people, many of whom will need housing.
After the state okays a recently passed Lee zoning bylaw on marijuana facilities, Wickham expects applicants will start lining up at town hall to start cannabis businesses.
Back to Powerhouse Square in Great Barrington. Charles, the principal of the developer Benchmark, said site work is being performed in preparation for the pouring of the foundation for the new building that will house the Co-op and some condominiums above it.
Steel beams should arrive by the end of July, at which time the building will be framed out. Charles expects the building to be “weathered-in” by the end of summer or end of fall. That way, work can be performed inside during the cold months.
He thinks the retail anchor Co-op should be able to relocate to the new building after the new year and that construction workers will fill in the rest of the retail spaces after that. He expects the condominiums to be ready for occupancy sometime in the first quarter of 2019.
The second phase will see the construction of a 32-unit condominium complex and parking garage set back to the south, closer to the John Dewey Academy property, also known as Searles Castle. Charles was not yet sure when that would phase start.
Charles appeared at Monday’s Great Barrington selectboard meeting with officials from National Grid to answer questions during a public hearing about an unattractive utility pole across Bridge Street from the Powerhouse site.
An existing wooden pole redirecting three-phase electrical lines from the north side of Bridge Street to the parking lot behind the former Harland Foster building had to be replaced recently with a taller, thicker fiberglass pole.
The old wooden pole was guyed with a wire that crossed south over Bridge Street and the old Laramee’s Cleaner’s building (since demolished). Because the new Co-op and condominiums will be taller than Laramee’s, the guy wire was deemed completely impractical.
So National Grid had to install the fiberglass pole because it could remain free-standing even with the wires on a 90-degree angle. While the selectmen ultimately acquiesced, more than one of them called the behemoth “ugly.”
“There was no alternative because that pole has to stand on its own,” Charles told the Edge. “That pole holds quite a bit of infrastructure.”