Great Barrington — Contrary to rumors that the project has been abandoned or put on indefinite hold, plans to convert the former Searles Middle School Bridge Street into a hotel are proceeding apace, the developer has told The Edge.
The project to convert the building into an upscale 88-room hotel got the green light from the selectboard more than two years ago but work has been proceeding largely out of view, said developer Chrisoula D. “Chrystal” Mahida. Right off the bat, significant and time-consuming asbestos remediation had to be performed on the 121-year-old structure.
Most recently, important historical artifacts had to be identified and removed from the building at the request of the town’s Historical Commission. Those artifacts are being stored in a barn at the Great Barrington Historical Society‘s headquarters and museum, with others stored in the society’s archival room upstairs in the Ramsdell Library in Housatonic.
“We continue to work on the myriad of details that must be accomplished before ground breaking,” Mahida spokesman Dave Carpenter said in a statement. “We are pleased that having rid the property of all asbestos last year, we were able to recently deliver to the Great Barrington Historical Society the artifacts they requested. Yet, another milestone accomplished.”
Chrystal Mahida and her husband, Vijay, who own several hotels in Berkshire County, did not offer a specific timeline for when construction to convert the school would begin, but she wanted to assure the public that plans are proceeding.
At its April 1 meeting, the Historical Commission presented an inventory of artifacts removed from the building, or that the Mahida team was planning to remove. The items range from the mundane—such as doors, doorknobs and light fixtures—to the sentimental—such as a basketball scoreboard and a blackboard with farewell messages from students when the school transitioned from a high school to a middle school with the opening of Monument Mountain Regional High School in 1969—said Historical Commission member Gary Leveille. The school itself closed in 2004 when the Berkshire Hills Regional School District opened a regional middle school on Monument Valley Road.
And on Tuesday evening, April 24, the town Conservation Commission heard from SK Design Group‘s Sarah Gapinski, a civil engineer and project manager for Mahida and the company she formed for the project, 79 Bridge Street Realty LLC.
Gapinski asked the commission to extend the order of conditions it issued to Mahida on May 10, 2016. As a result of the state Wetlands Protection Act and Rivers Protection Act, conservation commissions may place restrictions on development near wetlands or water courses. The former Searles School sits next to the Bridge Street bridge on the banks of the Housatonic River.
The order of conditions issued for the project two years ago was set to expire. Gapinski asked for a three-year extension and received it. See video below of her exchange with the Conservation Commission:
In 2015, the Historical Commission designated the empty Searles building as “historically and architecturally significant.” That determination was necessary if the Mahidas were to obtain an exemption from a recent zoning bylaw limiting new hotel construction to 45 rooms.
But the Mahidas redefined the word “redevelop” and promptly announced their intention to demolish the structure, an action the town’s attorney warned might violate the intent of the bylaw allowing for an exemption from the room limit.
So the Mahidas set about revising their plans, eventually settling on preserving the exterior of the main building while demolishing only the gymnasium and the annex. Even among erstwhile Mahida critics, the final proposal, which is expected to cost upwards of $25 million, met with widespread acceptance, and the selectboard approved the special permit unanimously.
When completed, the hotel, which will be known as “the Berkshire,” will add to recent revival of the Bridge Street corridor. The $30 million Powerhouse Square development, which includes a new and expanded home for the Berkshire Food Co-op, is expected to open next month.
Meanwhile, a proposal to redevelop 100 Bridge Street, diagonally across the Housatonic River from the former Searles school and formerly the home of New England Log Homes, is moving forward after the Zoning Board of Appeals made a positive ruling earlier this month. That project includes 45 units of affordable housing and, perhaps, a senior living complex.
“With Co-op construction progressing nicely, and with the Log Homes property housing plans finally getting a go-ahead, Bridge Street is starting to take shape nicely and Crystal Mahida’s hotel project will be a beautiful complement to these other two important projects,” Carpenter said.
The Mahidas have been major players in the Berkshire County hotel scene. In addition to the Fairfield on Stockbridge Road, Vijay Mahida owns the nearby Monument Mountain Motel in Great Barrington and the Hilton Garden Inn in Pittsfield. Vijay Mahida’s brother, Pravin Mahida, owns the Days Inn in downtown Great Barrington.
Several years ago, Vijay Mahida also acquired the old Magnuson Hotel on Route 7 in Lenox, which he demolished last year and plans to replace with a 100-room Residence Inn by Marriott and a conference center. However, there has been little activity at the site since demolition.
Mahida has been at the center, along with competing developer Joseph Toole, of what have been dubbed the “hotel wars” in Lenox and Pittsfield.