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Select Board considers proposal for former Housatonic School property

At its Monday, October 24 meeting, the Great Barrington Select Board reviewed the first of the two redevelopment proposals for the former Housatonic School from Arete Venture Partners LLC.

Great Barrington — At their meeting on Monday, October 24, the Select Board reviewed the first of two proposals to redevelop the former Housatonic School. The elementary school building, located at 207 Pleasant St. in Housatonic, was built in 1907 and has been vacant since it was shut down in 2003.

In response to requests the town put out in January for proposals to redevelop the building, two companies were determined by the town to meet the minimum bid criteria: WDM Properties LLC and Arete Venture Partners LLC.

The Housatonic School  overlooks the village. Photo: David Scribner

While Phase One of the process required that the companies submit their initial plans for the property, Phase Two involved the companies submitting site plans, financial commitment letters, a budget, and a marketing plan.

At the October 24 meeting, the Select Board reviewed the proposal submitted by Arete Venture Partners LLC. Select Board Chairman Stephen Bannon said that plans submitted by WDM Properties LLC will be reviewed at the next regular Select Board meeting, which is scheduled for Monday, November 7 at 6 p.m. Bannon added that the board would be giving its assessment of both presentations at the Select Board meeting scheduled for Monday, Nov. 21 at 6 p.m.

Presenting the project at the meeting were Attorney Kathleen McCormick of Great Barrington law firm McCormick, Murtagh & Marcus, along with company general partners Jeff Glickman and Elliot Firewalker.

The company plans on constructing 14 residential apartments on the second and third floors of the building, which will include four 650-square-foot studio apartments that will be set at affordable housing rates. “Meaning that they will meet all of the criteria and the price point that is required for that designation,” Glickman said. “It will go along with the proper checks and balances for that for as long as they need to be assigned that way. Usually, it’s a 20-year horizon, as I understand.”

Additionally, the company plans to construct six 770-square-foot one-bedroom and one-bathroom apartments that will be set at free market rents, along with four 850-square-foot two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartments.

On the ground floor, the company intends on installing 5,500 square feet of open-concept commercial space, with a walkout to a hard-scraped area for lounge and patio access. “It will be a community-minded space,” Glickman said. “It is a commercial space for the community mindset. It will be first of all integrated into the landscaping around it by the dugout on the east side of the building. We want to take a considerable amount of time and energy to make sure we find the right tenant for the space, whether it be commercial or somebody that is nonprofit, or the township itself. It would be somebody who will have a use for that space that encourages community traffic, human interaction, and human capital.”

According to the company’s submitted plans, the total budget for the project would be $4,823,798. The company lists $5,735,402 in monetary sources for the budget for the project. As part of the project, the company is requesting a $1,628,313 town contribution, and a $600,000 affordable housing contribution.

Vice-Chair Leigh Davis questioned the proposed town contribution that the company is requesting. “The budget is $5.8 million, and you’re looking at $2.7 million from the town?” Davis said. “That seems quite a lot.”

“We are not giving our opinion tonight,” Chairman Bannon told Davis.

In regards to the company’s plans for the first floor of the building, Vice-Chair Leigh Davis asked if the company had thought about a plan if it could not attract a commercial tenant. “Have you thought about a possible change of use?” Davis asked. “We have an incidence going on that something has changed substantially from a commercial aspect to housing. What’s your plan B and can we feel confident that you’re going to be committed to this commercial aspect?”

“I think at this stage when you submit a proposal, where we don’t even have full access to surveys, and all the extreme technical items to have full build-out plans, and we don’t have control of the product and the timelines, it’s really hard to come in with a black and white tenant in place,” McCormick said. “Because when you’re negotiating terms of space, you need to know that they want to know the exact terms, including when the space is going to be ready. That’s very difficult from where we’re standing now.”

“One of the things you want to make sure we were doing to deal with was to make sure that the price that we’re anticipating on the rent for that space is not too high,” Glickman said. “And it may sound like it’s not addressing what you’re saying, but it’s directly correlated. That space can be filled with a good tenant. It’s just a question of whether or not they can afford it.”

Select Board member Garfield Reed, who is also the Select Board representative to the town’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, asked about the proposed $600,000 affordable housing contribution from the town. “From the earlier conversations we had with the town, it was floated to us in some conversation that there would potentially be an additional contribution from the town towards an affordable housing component,” Glickman said. “In the current plan, I have four of the 14 units listed as affordable housing. I believe the [state] Legislature has it where affordable housing will be designated [as such] for 20 years.”

“What if you don’t get that $600,000?” Reed asked. “We are out trying to do our own thing as well and we probably would want to hold it for somebody else.”

In response, Bannon said, “They don’t care where the money comes from, as long as the money is provided. So it doesn’t necessarily have to come from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.”

When Vice-Chair Davis asked if the company would be pursuing historic tax credits from the state for the preservation of the historic exterior of the building, Glickman said they would not. “For developers to cross the hurdle of dealing with the pain of trying to acquire a historical tax credit, there’s certainly a minimum threshold or critical mass that you have to clear with,” Glickman said. “You need to hire qualified restorers, a consultant, and a whole list of stuff.”

Glickman said that obtaining tax credits for the project, which would include hiring consultants and employees to try and obtain it, would cost approximately 12 to 15 percent of the project. “Although we are not filing for historical tax credits, we have no intentions of sizing up a coat of paint on the building,” Glickman said.

The project calls for 14 parking spaces and one handicapped parking space. During the portion of the meeting for comments from residents, Ben Elliot said that he is concerned about the number of parking spaces planned and pedestrian safety around the property. “You might rely on on-street parking and increase the amount of traffic,” Elliot said. “On the [plan] sketch, I noticed that you have two crosswalks planned on both sides of Highland Street crossing Pleasant Street, which currently does not exist. Will there be pedestrian safety measures put in place with this development?”

Elliot said that there is a park nearby the school and that the driveway for the project is “a pretty heavy trafficked entrance to the park for children and families.”

“I think that the best answer I can give you is that it’s too premature,” Chairman Bannon said. “We’ll do what we will have to do. But yes, there will be safety measures.”

See Arete Ventures’ full plans for the former Housatonic School building here.


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