Proposal for Housatonic School in search of tenants, funding

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By Tuesday, Jun 12 News  13 Comments
David Scribner
The former Housatonic Elementary School overlooks the playground in center of the village of Housatonic. The school's playground and lawn create what amounts to the village green.

Great Barrington — Work continues on a proposal for the reuse of the former Housatonic School but, at this relatively early stage, there are no tenants who have officially signed on, even as the developers continue to work to secure financing.

Last summer, Grayhouse Partners put forward a proposal for a “public-private partnership” for the building. The plan, the only one the town has so far received for the latest request for proposals, is for an adaptive reuse of the vacant 110-year-old school on Pleasant Street near the center of the Housatonic section of Great Barrington.

The proposal calls for a mixed use of the building that includes a combination of housing and work space, with seven affordable rental units and a total of 14,000 square feet of commercial office space.Click here to view the first 33 pages of the proposal, which includes the one-page letter and executive summary.

Grayhouse principal Bill Nappo and his financial consultant, Gillette Conner, updated the selectboard Monday night on the progress of the project. They said they are working closely with MassDevelopment, a state economic development agency, on securing financing.

“Basically, we’ve made a lot of headway in looking at the tapestry of financing arrangements,” Conner said. “The work is still ongoing.”

See video below of Bill Nappo and Gillette Conner, members of the Grayhouse Partners team, updating the selectboard on the progress of their project:

 

Nappo met last week with officials from MassDevelopment. Conner added that she and Nappo have “identified a number different funding opportunities and options to actually get this started.” Nappo and Conner did not specify what those opportunities were.

Today they were headed to a western Massachusetts meeting of MassDevelopment in Springfield, where they expected to meet with key officials and represent Great Barrington.

Grayhouse has not yet estimated the cost of the project. Its proposed reuse of the town-owned Housatonic School does not include a purchase of the property. As a result, the town would not profit from a sale, nor would the property return to the tax rolls.

Members of the Grayhouse Partners team, financial consultant Gillette Conner and principal Bill Nappo, explain their proposal for the reuse of Housatonic School Monday night to the Great Barrington Selectmen. Photo: Terry Cowgill

A key catalyst, Conner said, will not only be getting the required financing but bringing on tenants who will attract more tenants.

“What we’ve discovered, in all of the months that we’ve been working on due diligence, is this is a project that is really going to require a little bit of a domino effect,” Conner said.

Nappo said they are “exploring many opportunities,” including partnering with educational organizations, “universities and start-up businesses” and, Conner added, “identifying potential entities to move into the space.”

Selectman Dan Bailly wanted to know if Grayhouse was considering the town itself as a potential occupant of one of the spaces. Nappo said the idea “was mentioned in a bullet point,” but he and Conner have been working with town manager Jennifer Tabakin and town planner Chris Rembold on parking, fiber optics and infrastructure.

Tabakin said she had informally mentioned the possibility but, in the absence of any clear direction from the selectmen, the topic never went beyond that stage. Selectboard Chairman Steve Bannon asked that the item be put on the agenda for the next board meeting.

Nappo and Conner have not yet said how much it will cost to complete the project but structural engineer James Clark, who ran unsuccessfully this spring for selectman, conducted a study six years ago. He estimated the total cost of a renovation would be almost $1.9 million, which includes the removal of asbestos and lead, and the construction of an elevator needed to bring the building into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

James Clark. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Shuttered by the Berkshire Hills Regional School District more than 10 years ago, the Housatonic School has a long and checkered history. The former community elementary school opened in 1909 and has remained mostly empty since 2003 when Berkshire Hills consolidated its schools with a new regional elementary- and middle-school campus on Monument Valley Road.

Requests for proposals soliciting potential buyers or others who would want to use the Housatonic School were sent out in 2010 and again in 2012. More than two years ago, the town sent out another RFP but nothing came of it.

The Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire responded to the first RFP, submitting a mixed-use plan that included 11 units of affordable housing and commercial space, including space for nonprofits and even a satellite office for police. But eventually, CDC executive director Timothy Geller told The Edge, former town manager Kevin O’Donnell “pulled the plug with no reason given.”

Longtime observers also say many residents of Housatonic opposed the project because they confused affordable housing with low-income housing and thought the CDC proposal would bring in undesirables to the neighborhood. Another RFP was sent out in 2014 but nothing came from it.

Parking will no doubt be an issue for any new owner of the school. The adjacent Housie Dome, which now functions as a community center and contains the former school’s gymnasium, will not be a part of the deal. The school’s playground is now a town park and also will not be marketed as part of a potential sale. So in any adaptive reuse of the building, neither the Housie Dome spots nor the playground itself could be used for parking, further complicating the reuse of the building.

Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire executive director Tim Geller. Photo: Heather Bellow

Given the challenges to the Grayhouse proposal posed by the property, two influential town residents who spoke to The Edge on the condition of anonymity asked if CDC would be willing to consider resubmitting its proposal from 2010. They reasoned that the climate of fear might have abated and that opponents from 2010 might reconsider their opposition now that the building has languished for eight more years.

In an Edge interview, Geller said CDC is listed in the proposal as a Grayhouse team member and is lending its expertise when asked. And he added that it would be premature for CDC to put forward another proposal.

“We need to give Grayhouse ample opportunity to carry out their evaluation of the highest and best use of the building,” Geller said. “Until their process is complete, we really won’t know what the options are that are financially feasible.”

Conner insisted that talks with state officials have been encouraging. “People at MassDevelopment are very interested in this, very keen on it, and kind of bullish in investing in this part of the state,” she said.

In a meeting with officials from MassDevelopment last week, Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, participated via conference call and was “very supportive of us and this project,” Conner added.

Neither Conner nor the selectmen put forth a timeline but both Conner and Nappo pledged to deliver more detailed and timely updates to the board in the future.


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13 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Ritch Holben says:

    Ya know, it’s ironic that two of the issues that keep this project from moving are nearly the same word… Park and Parking. I firmly believe that this building could function as the beating heart of Housatonic – maybe with housing included, maybe not – but the fact that the town leaders, who say they want this project to roll along, are so unwilling to compromise and keep a stranglehold on it’s viability by making the Park a no-touch zone is, in my opinion, ridiculous. I LOVE PARKS, but in this case, in this location, give up 60′ of it and alleviate the pressure that siting has put on this important project. I suggest you test it for community input. Stake it out. Put up a temporary fence. Graffiti it. Make it an art project. Dedicate it to DuBois. IDK. But try something! The entire town can benefit if the town planners can come together to figure this out, and the town holds all the cards. Make this heart beat again.

  2. Tom Norton says:

    I totally disagree. The park and Housie dome are the heartbeat of the village and the most utilized public resource in the entire town of GB. I say tear the building down and be done with it and stop pouring more money into a lost cause.

    1. Ritch Holben says:

      Yes, that worked so well with the firehouse in GB. Architecturally, this building sets a tone for Housatonic, like the water tower. It has merit and is worth preserving.

  3. John says:

    Drove by this building this weekend and was amazed nothing has been done with it. I’ve said it before. Be done with it. Put it for sale for 1 dollar and buyer will assume all liability.
    A perfect example where government can’t get anything done unless it spends a fortune in tax dollars…

  4. Tom Norton says:

    The town had the opportunity to refurbish the school when the choice was made to abandon it and build the new middle school complex. That choice was made due to the COST of renovation. The building has outlived its usefulness and is a behemoth on an otherwise beautiful piece of property. Once sold its out of our hands forever. I say the value of the property without the school on it is worth much more to the town, and be utilized for parking,improvement to the Community center, and access and improvement the Housatonic Village Common.

    1. Ritch Holben says:

      Yes, that worked so well with the firehouse in GB. Architecturally, this building sets a tone for Housatonic, like the water tower. It has merit and is worth preserving.

  5. Stephen Gerard Dietemann says:

    I was commissioned in 2014 by local hoteliers Richard Proctor and Claire Weatherall to provide a design for this building as a 20 room hotel with the possibility of adding some community use space and a kitchen at a later date. Yes, parking and asbestos are challenges, but, in my opinion, not insurmountable. We completed a schematic design and our costs for renovation (including an elevator) were in the neighborhood of $2 million dollars.
    Most importantly, the building (as of 2014) appeared to be still remediable and given it’s location between the park and the Dome in the center of the village, it could be a handsome definitional building both architecturally and functionally if properly developed.
    It must be noted, however, that like some of the adjacent mill building, this building is deteriorating from lack of use and the costs associated with renovation are increasing as a result. While I haven’t been inside the building since I worked on it myself, I believe that it can still be saved and that would be a plus to the village.

    1. Lauren says:

      Steve, I’m curious as to what happened to the hoteliers after you provided the design. What made them decide against going forward with their hotel plan? Might they be re-interested?

      1. Steve Dietemann says:

        Lauren,
        At the time we were working on this 20 room hotel project the town limited the number of hotel or motel rooms to (I believe) 40 or 45 rooms. However, at the town meeting following the development of our plans in Housatonic, the town passed 7.10.2-2 which allows the SPGA a ‘deviation’ from that room number limitation for certain kinds of buildings, primarily those deemed to have historic significance. It has been four years but if I recall correctly, we were concerned that the number of hotel rooms in the area might then sky rocket. This concern was quickly reinforced when initial efforts were made to renovate the Searles School Building as a hotel with, if memory serves, about 100 rooms. In brief, it was at least in part the possibility of surplus hotel rooms — and, as a result, declining room rates — that helped change their minds about proceeding with their project.
        As to Richard and Claire: they sold their motel, the Briarcliff Motel, in 2017, and I don’t know if they are still in the area.

    2. Ritch Holben says:

      I completely agree, Stephen. I was part of a team that wanted to renovate the building in 2012. Our concept was to revive it as an incubator/co-work facility who’s costs were underwritten by investors who would foster young entrepreneurs and help launch thier businesses. We wanted to bring more young people to the Berkshires, create more jobs that would have relevance in a future economy, and provide another social hub for the village. The incubator concept is very popular in larger cities, but the idea for the School, which hinged upon the idea of providing high speed fiber connectivity for these businesses, would allow development by folks who preferred to live and work in a more rural environment of the Berkshires. Our financier backed out at the last minute and our volunteer efforts were left fallow, but I still think it could be a hugely successful venture. Im still holding the plans if anyone in the Edge readership wants to step up.

  6. Tom Norton says:

    Developed, build, at the expense of green space. Pack in the structures and the additional vehicles that will be required to support such enterprises, all at the expense of green space. Look at the Iredale developement. Lost was a fully functional playground with adequate access. Gained was Giggle Park behind town hall. Much smaller, less functional, and less accessible. Housie has the only multi-generational public space in the entire town. And it’s the first park in Housatonic amongst the many in GB. We don’t need hotels. We need places for families that live in crowded out neighborhoods whose yards have become parking lots, to go and feel what it’s like to live in a quiet country village, which is what Housie is.

  7. Tom Norton says:

    Do you want to see what development looks like? Go to Burning Tree of Christian Hill Rd. Disgusting @

  8. stephen gerard dietemann says:

    Tom,
    I am not saying anything about removing the park or losing any green space. The park is clearly an amenity to the town. But that’s not the point. The point is that the school building is already there and, in my opinion, is an asset to the Housatonic if properly developed which does not need to be at the expense of any existing park or green space.
    I obviously believe the hotel would be an asset, opening up the village to visitors who might never even be aware that it exists. It is also worth noting that there will be not insignificant costs associated with either the slow deterioration of the building until condemnation — the worst possible option in my opinion if you care about the village — or demolition prior to that as the asbestos and other toxic substances within the structure will need to be removed regardless.
    Frankly, I am confused by your reference to ‘Burning Tree’. In Housatonic we are talking about saving an existing building here with minimal changes to the exterior and Burning tree is a residential development. The two have nothing to do with one another.

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