Great Barrington — With a game-changing downtown development heading toward the continuance of its special permit hearing on Monday (Feb. 27) and a groundbreaking set for next month, support by representatives from what will be its expanded anchor store illustrates how critical the store is to the town.
Berkshire Co-op Market’s general manager Daniel Esko told the Selectboard at the first part of the public hearing last week that this $8 million-per-year natural foods grocer needs Benchmark Development’s Powerhouse Square just as much as the town needs the Co-op.
“The Co-op has a big economic impact on the town, and we want to stay downtown,” Esko said. He added that, if the store has to leave the downtown to expand, both the town and its residents would lose a valuable “resource.”
The Co-op began bursting at the seams at least a few years ago, with its convenient downtown location that can be reached on foot from many homes, apartments and businesses. But it draws plenty of cars from all over the Berkshires too, since it is also a popular meeting place with its cafe, food bar and community-oriented approach.
The store needs more space both inside and out and, after a few years of searching for the right new place to expand, Benchmark’s proposed $15 million mixed development next door turned out to be the right fit for a 14,000-square-foot store. Benchmark’s plans include smaller retail and office space, and condominiums above and in a separate building. The Co-op’s current location will become its new parking lot.
Benchmark’s Michael Charles and Brian Cohan have been before the planning board, the historical commission and the design district board, the latter having weighed in on the proposed development’s adherence to the early 1900s industrial vibe of the surrounding area.
And as he made his case, Charles told the Selectboard that the beauty of this development is that it adds “greater density downtown” in an area “already fed by water and sewer.”
“It’s part of the national trend of people wanting to live in a downtown rather than in the outskirts,” he added. “It enlivens the whole Bridge Street core,” including Memorial Park, a popular baseball diamond, next to which Benchmark plans to build a wall where people can eat lunch purchased at the Co-op and watch games.
Adding a total of 49 new residences to the downtown does something else that the town badly needs. “More living means more shopping and an expansion of the tax base,” Charles said.
Charles echoed Esko, saying there weren’t very many “viable” options for Co-op expansion downtown.
One of those had been a proposed mixed-use development at 100 Bridge Street, a brownfield just across the Housatonic River. But delays and other complications to plans for remediating highly contaminated soil there put that location out of the running.
Charles said he estimates a 12- to 13-month construction period for this first phase of the project that includes the new Co-op.
There have been a few little bumps in Benchmark’s process, but those appear to be smoothing down. The attorney for an abutting business, Wheeler & Taylor Insurance Co., had voiced concerns of his clients about the construction pushing into its property. Charles said discussions about easements there were still in progress and would be resolved.
The second phase of the plan is the other condominium building very close to the historic Searles Castle, now the John Dewey Academy. Members of the historic commission had worried that the new construction would taint the historic property. But Benchmark did receive approval from the commission to build on the site, and next month it will seek approval for the building, Charles said by phone.
And board member Ed Abrahams noted that Benchmark’s traffic study for what is already a busy end of Bridge Street was done in October rather than July, the “busiest” time of year.
Mercifully for Benchmark, contamination at a former dry cleaning space that will be demolished for construction is relatively minor and contained.
Since last fall the Co-op has raised $430,000 in Co-op owner commitments for loans after launching a campaign to raise $1.3 million.
In a letter this week to the store’s collective owners, Esko said the Co-op will take a break from fundraising to work with Benchmark on the design of the new store before it returns to securing the rest of the money it needs to proceed.
And back at last week’s Selectboard meeting, Co-op board member Mike Maguire got up and reiterated how critical Benchmark’s project is.
“It is the only viable way to keep it downtown.”