Reinventing downtown Great Barrington: Commerce or retail ‘destination’?
Great Barrington — What does downtown Great Barrington want to be? A place that attracts all comers with destination retailers at every turn? Or a place where lots of valuable retail space is taken up by businesses that do little to attract crowds of shoppers to downtown?
Retailers and landlords have been quietly asking this question for years, but it’s now squarely out in the open thanks to a discussion last Thursday of the Great Barrington Planning Board, where members engaged in a philosophical and practical discussion of whether to limit the proliferation of banks and real estate offices downtown.
“Personally, it’s really dismaying to see all those real estate offices take over those spaces,” said planning board member Jonathan Hankin, who himself is a broker at Berkshire Property Agents on Railroad Street.
Hankin and other members of the board wondered aloud how they might be able restrict those kinds of businesses – that is, if the board decided it wanted to do so. Some observers have also included law firms in that list of businesses.
“Where do we start?” asked member Jack Musgrove. “It’s abhorrent.”
“You want uses that drive foot traffic,” added planning board chair Brandee Nelson. “At the same time, there are economics … The question is how we could influence who the tenants are as a planning board.”
Both town planner Chris Rembold and Nelson said the town could theoretically amend its zoning bylaws to prohibit banks and real estate offices, though Rembold said he views the matter as “more of a management issue” than a zoning issue. Law firms have also been cited by critics as examples of businesses that take up valuable retail space without contributing much to the vibrancy of a downtown.
“We could restrict the table of uses,” Nelson said. “You would diversify the shops, but I imagine building owners would come screaming.”
Hankin added that he doesn’t “see banks as an issue, really. Banks are something historically associated with the center of town. Every business virtually every day goes to a bank.”
Several board members were concerned, however, about the downtown banks’ drive-thru windows, either because of safety or environmental concerns.
Though he is sympathetic to the idea of limiting those types of businesses, Musgrove said he’s “not even sure we have the authority to restrict real estate offices.”
Jeremia Pollard is a partner at Hannon Lerner, a law firm based in Lee with a second-floor office in downtown Great Barrington. In an interview, he said limiting those types of businesses has been done before. He pointed to a case several years ago in New York City.
City planners were troubled by a couple of areas in Manhattan where banks were heavily clustered. There were, for example, no less than seven banks clustered along a 500-foot stretch of Broadway near City Hall.
The situation was similar on 125th Street in Harlem, where the city planning commission nine years ago created a new 125th Street District, in part to “to enliven the street during the day and in the evening,” according to one of the commissioners. There were 15 banks between Broadway and Second Avenue. All of them are closed in the evening and for most of the weekend.
The zoning was not retroactive and did not ban banks. It did, however, prohibit new banks from occupying the ground floors in the newly created zone. And it allowed limited numbers of ATMs in the ground-floor entryways to the upstairs banks.
“The theory is you promote a more diverse foot traffic use that entails daytime and nighttime foot traffic,” Pollard said. “In some cities, they’ve tried to address this because they don’t want the street to go dark at night. If you’ve got a street with a lot of banks, the only thing that’s on at night are the streetlights.”
Pollard, who is town counsel to several municipalities in Berkshire County, agreed with Nelson and Rembold that Great Barrington could enact something similar in its zoning bylaws, but he cautioned that it could create other problems.
“If [the zoning bylaws] allow office space as a use, then you get into a tough area, where you say what offices are okay and what offices aren’t,” Pollard explained. “It’s going to be a tough proposition to identify the types of commercial offices you allow versus the ones that you don’t. A town like Great Barrington might be better off letting the market decide.”
Kameron Spaulding is in a unique position to speak to this issue: He is both chairman of the Lenox Planning Board and executive director of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce.
“We’ve talked about it before but it never got beyond the philosophical stage,” Spaulding said in an interview. “In the last 12 or 13 years, there’s never been a serious proposal.
“Any licensed planner can tell you, when they were in school, a great downtown does not have a bunch of real estate offices. You want traffic generators. And you don’t get that from real estate or law offices.”
Like Hankin, Spaulding exempted banks from his list. He described banks as “really a required downtown service” because they do attract traffic. In addition, downtown merchants and retail owners need to be able to walk to banks to make change or deposits.
Spaulding said there is a middle ground between allowing unrestricted growth of downtown banks, real estate offices and law firms and prohibiting them. They could be permissible by special permit, which would give the town some wiggle room.
In a three-block area encompassing Franklin, Church and Main streets, Spaulding said, there are six real estate offices, three banks and one law firm. As for why real estate brokers prefer downtowns, Spaulding was pragmatic.
“They want the window display,” he said. “Neither Lenox nor Great Barrington would allow you to put up a billboard downtown, so they fill their windows up with pictures of homes … They want to feed off the other traffic.”
Between St. James Place and Rosseter Street, Great Barrington’s Main Street – which, for purposes of The Edge’s survey, also includes Railroad and Elm streets – is home to six real estate offices, five banks and five law firms. Of a total of 64 storefronts, four are currently vacant, including the polluted Ried’s Cleaners, which has been closed since November 2006 and has remained empty ever since.
The Edge contacted several downtown realtors. Only one, Randy Thunfors of Stone House Properties, responded. Thunfors acknowledged that his office does not generate the same foot traffic as a retail store, but Stone House has a different approach.
Inside his Railroad Street storefront is Gallery 35, an art gallery featuring individual local artists and artists from area organizations such as the Richmond-West Stockbridge Artists’ Guild. Eventually, Thunfors hopes to host exhibits by artists from Community Access to the Arts and Monument Mountain Regional High School.
“The idea is to give space to a number of artists who could not afford a gallery on Railroad Street,” Thunfors said. “We’re very conscious of foot traffic and we want to be involved in the community.”
The Great Barrington office of Stone House, which is in its 33rd year, was previously in an upstairs location but, when a street-level space recently became available in the Chef’s Shop building, Stone House moved.
Thunfors said he thinks some sectors of retail downtown are seeing challenges because of the proliferation of online shopping.
“Fighting Amazon is not an easy job,” he observed, referring to the internet retailing giant.
Railroad Street in particular is seeing some stresses, though they look to be temporary. The Lauren Clark Fine Art gallery is vacant and papered over after the artist moved to Stockbridge Road last year. Likewise, the former Seeds store is papered over but will be replaced by an as-yet-unannounced restaurant.
In addition, there is a construction project going on at the top of the street. Framework Properties is adapting the former Mario’s restaurant building into 12 market-rate rental units, a garden deck on the roof, and five commercial storefront spaces.
“Ian and Sam are doing a great job,” Thunfors said of Framework principals Sam Nickerson and Ian Rasch. “But Martin’s was a big draw.”
Thunfors was referring to one of Railroad Street’s biggest recent challenges: the closing last year of Martin’s Restaurant, the popular iconic diner that anchored the top of the street for 27 years and always attracted lots of foot traffic to that part of town.
Others including Rob Navarino, Thunfors’ landlord and owner of the Chef’s Shop, have said Saturdays haven’t been the same on Railroad Street ever since the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market relocated in 2014 from the old train station behind Town Hall to the fairgrounds and, later, to a parking lot on School Street behind the eastern row of shops on Main Street.
Navarino is less concerned about the kinds of tenants in downtown storefronts than he is about the overall health of the retail sector there. He sees the biggest problems downtown as parking and expense.
“Lack of parking alienates local customers more so than the tourists,” Navarino said in an interview. “They tell me they avoid shopping downtown and they’d rather go to a mall or someplace where they can get parking – or shop online.”
As Navarino sees it, if you can’t get the local population to shop downtown, then you need to adjust your product to sell higher-end goods and services during tourist season, which further discourages locals from coming downtown.
“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Navarino added. “The more expensive business alienates local customers even more, then rents go up.”
In addition, Navarino said the cost of “construction and renovation is extremely high.” It is a challenge, he said, to get local contractors to build “at locally sustainable rates,” in part because so many of them are accustomed to working for moneyed part-time residents.
“We have to pay that premium as well, which drives rents up” Navarino explained. “The impression created is that the building owner makes a killing, but that’s not true at all.”
Businessman Richard Stanley has long advocated for caution in renting to businesses that do not bring people into town. He thinks the idea of restricting real estate offices and law firms “definitely needs a discussion.”
“Usually, the people that need to be part of this discussion are landlords, but I’d also include real estate people,” said Stanley.
Stanley owns the Triplex Cinema, which opened in 1995, as well as the Barrington House, a large Main Street building that contains apartments and retail establishments such as Baba Louie’s, GB Eats and Robin’s Candy. He also owns the Beacon Cinema in downtown Pittsfield.
“This isn’t about real estate offices or banks or law firms. This is about creating an environment where people want to come downtown to shop and do things,” Stanley said in an interview. “That’s the way it’s usually done. All of those businesses could exist quite well anyplace else.”
Stanley refuses to rent to real estate firms or law firms (he has several storefronts on Main Street) and recently lost two tenants for that very reason, though he acknowledged he has the resources to hold out while other landlords do not.
Stanley said you need a healthy mix of businesses downtown so that they can “cross-pollinate each other” because “what’s good for the merchants is good for the landlords.”
“If you don’t have critical mass, then you’re going backwards,” he continued. “Even shopping centers work that way. A good mall developer does not rent space; he creates a destination. He starts with an anchor or several anchors, then the smaller stores.”
Not surprisingly, Stanley considers the Triplex, which also hosts the annual Berkshire International Film Festival, to be an anchor that “changed the nature of Great Barrington” and generated lots of foot traffic downtown.
He also considers the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and Carr Hardware to be destination anchors. Even Fuel, the popular coffee bar and restaurant that hosts live music on most weekends, is considered by Stanley to be an anchor of sorts.
“For me, that’s what we need to be adding,” Stanley said.
For its part, after a lengthy discussion, the planning board seemed wary of placing restrictions on types of offices downtown.
“To me, the biggest issue is how many is too many?” said member Malcolm Fick. “If every storefront becomes real estate, then there’s no tourists, really. If it turns out that real estate sales suffer because we lost people downtown, then the real estate offices will have to close.”
Musgrove suggested the possibility of a downtown business association. That subject was broached last year, when an informal panel studied the possibility of a so-called Business Improvement District (BID), the special district that would tax property owners to pay for a variety of services that proponents say would help improve the business climate of downtown. A BID district would also have borrowing authority that could be tapped for capital projects.
Rembold said the town is still considering the BID but there is no firm timetable for when it will be unveiled, if ever.
“The town continues to work with local property owners and business owners to see if a management organization like a BID is viable,” Rembold told The Edge.
Selectman Ed Abrahams told planners he is bullish on downtown. Not only is there the Framework construction project at the top of Railroad Street with five new retail spaces, but there is the Powerhouse residential and retail development planned for Bridge Street that will contain the new headquarters for the Berkshire Co-op Market, which is actively pursuing funding for the project.
Abrahams also urged caution on zoning out banks, real estate offices and law firms from the downtown core: “We run the risk of the town or the economy changing and then we’ve locked them out.”
“We can always change our minds,” said planning board member Jeremy Higa.
Nelson ultimately concluded, “We can’t control it. This must be more market-driven.”