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.
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.
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.
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.