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Searles School to be preserved in new hotel plan; key opponents approve

“We are delighted. We feel good about the town. Vijay [Mahida] cares enough that he stepped up in a big way. They’re doing something very brave.” -- Save Searles School founder Bobby Houston

Great Barrington — The Searles School, as it turns out, will be saved –– by the same hotel developer many thought would destroy it.

Searles School
The essential components of the historic Searles School building on Bridge Street in Great Barrington will be remediated, as part of a new plan by hoteliers Vijay and Chrystal Mahida to convert the structure into an upscale hotel. Photo: Victor Feldman

The number of rooms in the luxury hotel, The Berkshire, will drop to 88 from 95, and the project will cost roughly several million dollars more, but 79 Bridge Street LLC developers Vijay and Chrystal Mahida say it’s worth it, and that they will make the numbers work. This decision, Vijay Mahida said, came as he and Chrystal were “searching for real peace” after months of controversy, mostly over the hotel scooting around the town’s 45-room limit bylaw.

Not only that, but the Mahidas’ now have the support of the project’s most vocal opponents, including Save Searles School founder Bobby Houston, also a redeveloper of historic buildings.

“We are delighted,” Houston said, as a small group including the Mahidas’ gathered Tuesday morning (January 12) outside the Searles School on Bridge Street. “We feel good about the town. Vijay cares enough that he stepped up in a big way.”

The main brick structure of the former middle and high school on Bridge Street, ground zero for a contentious cross-town war over issues like historic preservation, tax dollars, economic development and traffic, will be remediated and reused. The plan for the old annex and gymnasium buildings will stay the same, with the annex in back becoming an indoor pool and fitness area, and the gym a meeting hall for conferences.

In front of the Searles School on Tuesday, Bobby Houston, at left, shakes hands with hotel developer Vijay Mahida, while Chrystal Mahida looks on.
In front of the Searles School on Tuesday, Bobby Houston, at left, shakes hands with hotel developer Vijay Mahida, while Chrystal Mahida looks on.

The new plans were submitted to Town Hall late Wednesday afternoon (January 13).

The original, $24 million proposal involved demolishing the main building, and replacing it with a New England-style structure that many thought too generic-looking for the town. Most of the criticisms centered on the design and the bylaw loophole whereby the Searles School building, having been designated historic, would allow a developer to exceed the town’s 45-room limit on hotels – even though the structure itself could be demolished as the site was “redeveloped.” But as frustration grew and battle lines were drawn, nearly every aspect of the project was dissected. Others felt the large predicted tax revenues for the town and the rehabilitation of a building that appeared to be growing into dereliction, were enough for a thumbs up.

Vijay Mahida said while there are no bids on the work yet, he was given a rough estimate that it will cost “a couple million extra” to reuse the building. “It will be challenging to make the numbers work, but we will make it work.”

A “heart-to-heart” over tea and scones with Bobby Houston and partner Eric Shamie helped pull the Mahidas off their standard hotel profit margin and success trajectory in favor of community love.

To celebrate the new consensus on the future of the Searles School, members of the Save Searles School meet with the Mahidas at the school's front entrance. From left, From left: Save Searles' Beth Carlson and Bobby Houston, Chrystal Mahida, Planning Board member Malcolm Fick, Vijay Mahida, Nan Wile, Martha Fick and Roselle Chartock.
To celebrate a new consensus on the future of the Searles School, members of the Save Searles School meet with the Mahidas at the school’s front entrance. From left: Save Searles’ Beth Carlson and Bobby Houston, Chrystal Mahida, Planning Board member Malcolm Fick, Vijay Mahida, Nan Wile, Martha Fick and Roselle Chartock. Photo: Heather Bellow

“We didn’t expect the community to be divided as much as it was,” Vijay Mahida said, noting the opposition at the Selectboard’s first public hearing on the special permit that is needed to go forward with the project. “We thought we met the bylaw [requirements], but it didn’t change the hearts and minds of the people.”

Vijay Mahida also kept his ears open at Berkshire Functional Fitness, where Mahida, Houston and Shamie are all members. “I saw Eric at the gym” Mahida said. “He said he wasn’t opposed to the hotel but hoped we would meet the spirit of the bylaw.”

Selectboard member Ed Abrahams was beaming in front of Searles. This listening was exactly what he had hoped for and encouraged the Mahidas to do from the start. “It wasn’t always sweet, but this is what the bylaw was supposed to do,” he said. He had also prompted the Mahidas to do things like go before the town’s design committee, even though it wasn’t required. He reminded everyone that the Mahidas still need their permits.

“We’re not celebrating victory,” Mahida responded. “We’re celebrating peace.”

Everyone smiled; one could feel the “Amens” floating through the bitter cold.

“It feels really good to do it this way,” said Chrystal Mahida. “We want it to be part of this community.”

“They’re doing something very brave,” Houston said of the Mahidas, recalling a letter to the editor that called for building the hotel, but also preserving the “spirit” of the 45-room limit bylaw.

This was always Planning Board member Malcom Fick’s stance. In his case, he wanted adherence to the bylaw, though he thought a hotel would be great. Today, he said a hotel at the site is “a game-changer for the town.”

Another opponent of the project, Roselle Chartock, said her husband, WAMC Radio host and writer Alan, always says that “politics is the art of compromise,” and she said Vijay made such a gesture. “Now we have to make ours,” she said. “The goodwill is here now.”

Another vocal opponent, Ron Blumenthal, later told The Edge he was hopeful. “I’m looking forward to seeing the plans, but it sounds as if they are re-using the building, which was the major issue.”

Saving the building will require the Mahidas’ to go back to the drawing board, and that means the work won’t start this spring, as planned. “I have to slow down my process…that’s OK,” Vijay Mahida said.

Chrystal Mahida was philosophical. “We have to live and learn, grow and change. It’s the best we can do.”

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