Smooth sailing for Elm Court resort at Lenox ZBA hearing

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By Monday, Feb 23 News  5 Comments
David Scribner
Before the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals, Stockbridge architect Pamela Sandler explains the features of what she described as the historic restoration of Elm Court, under the $50 million plan proposed by Front Yard LLC to convert the historic estate into a resort.

Lenox – Like some resplendent cruise ship gliding to its expected destination, decks alight and sparkling in the dusk, the sounds of exquisite merriment issuing across the water as local inhabitants and officials line the harbor docks to witness its approach, the proposed $50 million high-end spa and resort at Elm Court is inexorably navigating regulatory channels while averting the shoals of neighborhood discontent.

Front Yard LLC, a subsidiary of Amstar, the Denver-based global real estate management firm, which purchased Elm Court three years ago, came to the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals hearing Wednesday evening (February 18) armed with a letter from the town Planning Board. The letter stated that three of the five Planning Board members intended to support the project that would transform the dormant – and derelict — 90-acre, 96-room Gilded Age estate and mansion situated in a residential district on Old Stockbridge Road, adding a 96-room wing, 60-seat restaurant, and a spa that would more than double Elm Court’s size.

The entrance to Elm Court on Old Stockbridge Road.

The entrance to Elm Court on Old Stockbridge Road.

Front Yard LLC had purchased the “Great Estate” for $9.8 million in 2012 from Robert and Sonya Berle who had tried unsuccessfully to find a financially viable way to remodel and maintain the 130- year-old historic mansion. The Berle family still holds the mortgage. Another Amstar subsidiary, Travaasa Experiential Resorts, will manage the Elm Court resort. Travaasa also manages resorts in Austin, Texas, and Maui.

First built as a summer “cottage” by the Vanderbilt fortune and inherited by the Berle family, Elm Court straddles Stockbridge and Lenox, thus requiring special permits from both towns. Front Yard has already sailed through Stockbridge, receiving a special permit on September 10. Lenox is its next port of call.

“This project will restore the property to its previous grandeur,” enthused Front Yard attorney Nicholas Ariente before the ZBA. “Guests will be able to stay at a Vanderbilt estate. This is its appeal. A full package: mountain views, historic preservation, 100 full-time jobs, increased tourism to Lenox with no cost to the town. And we will be spending $2 million to improve the sewer and water lines, and install a sidewalk along Old Stockbridge Road.”

Ariente also dismissed concerns that the resort would produce unacceptable levels of traffic along the narrow, undulating old Stockbridge Road, endangering pedestrians and bikers.

Elm Court in 1886.

Elm Court in 1886.

Architect Pamela Sandler of Stockbridge insisted that the restoration would “maintain the integrity of the existing building, with an extension that was organic to the property. This will restore the mansion and adhere to preservation standards.”

“This shows off what the Berkshires are all about,” added Travaasa President Adam Hawthorne. “It is the quintessential Berkshire experience.”

He noted that Travaasa, though with only four years experience in the hotel business, was intending to spend $2 million promoting Elm Court in its first year of operation, and $1 million annual in subsequent years.

With the special permit from the town of Stockbridge, Front Yard LLC only needs a special permit from the Lenox ZBA for access to the property in order to proceed with its project that could be completed by the spring of 2017.

That approval could come within three weeks. ZBA member Shawn Considine, who chaired the hearing, scheduled a public site visit of Elm Court for Monday, March 16 at 4 p.m., and a subsequent ZBA meeting for March 18, at which time a decision will be made.

At the hearing proponents of the project – with the gleam of increased commerce in their eyes – outnumbered the opponents who were primarily represented by the Old Stockbridge Road Neighborhood Association, distressed by the scale of the revamped estate and the disruption to the rural neighborhood.

On behalf of Front Yard LLC, Brent White, of White Engineering in Pittsfield, Mass., explains the plan to install a sidewalk, and sewer and water lines.

On behalf of Front Yard LLC, Brent White, of White Engineering in Pittsfield, Mass., explains the plan to install a sidewalk, and sewer and water lines.

“We have rights, too,” asserted Elm Court critic and Old Stockbridge Road resident Barney Edmunds. “Col. Wilde and the Vanderbilts left Elm Court abandoned. That is shameful. They should come back with a scaled-down plan.”

Old Stockbridge Road resident Gregory Whitehead, president of the Bishop Estate Association, described the Elm Court restoration as “embalming a corpse. This is a trade-off, more than a fair trade.”

Whitehead also cited author Carole Owens, whose book “Berkshire Cottages: A Vanishing Era,” surveys the evolution of the Gilded Age second homes, who had pointed out: “It is not usual in restoration to tear off the back of a building you are claiming to preserve.”

Whitehead urged the ZBA to conduct further hearings to examine each aspect of the proposed resort project, including its business plan.

“The proposal has been dumped on the table in one big slushy pile, and thus there is no depth to the review,” he wrote in a prepared statement. “This sort of confused process, with major questions unanswered, sets the stage for massive unforeseen consequences down the road.”

“It’s too big,” Dr. Alec Kloman told the ZBA. “It’s too big. This Travaasa is an experiment, and we are asking the developer to compromise. After all, what is the marketing plan? Lenox isn’t Austin. Scale is important. We are unique.”

For their part, advocates sounded familiar themes, lamenting the paucity of business in Lenox, with 13 storefronts vacant, and portraying the upscale resort as the white knight to restore commercial vitality to downtown Lenox, and declaring, as did Laurie Norton Moffat, executive director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, that “Gilded Age estates are the Berkshires, the distinguishing characteristic of our region, like the great country homes of England.”

The Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals: from left, Al Harper, Clifford Snyder, Shawn Considine, Robert Fuster Jr., and Robert Fuster.

The Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals: from left, Al Harper, Clifford Snyder, Shawn Considine, Robert Fuster Jr., and Robert Fuster.

But because Travaasa has not disclosed its business plan for Elm Court, skeptics remain, among them ZBA alternate member Albert Harper.

“Where is your market?” he inquired of Hawthorne. “There will be a 100-room hotel opening at Spring Lawn. Where are you getting your information that we can sustain two resorts?”

“We couldn’t build it with fewer rooms,” Hawthorne replied. “We’re not trying to make a quick profit. We hope to make a 6 to 7 percent return.”

He explained that profit margin is premised on full occupancy during the summer, which, he said, would allow the resort to “break even.”

“We will have to work hard the rest of the year,” he said, to make the projected 6 to 7 percent profit. Special events and corporate retreats could make the difference.

Carl Pratt, president of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce and general manager of Cranwell Resort, confirmed Hawthorne’s analysis: “You need 114 rooms in the Northeast. That’s the way it is. Bellefontaine [the estate from which Canyon Ranch emerged] would have remained a burnt out brick house without that number.”

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5 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Reinout van Wagtendonk says:

    I support Travaasa’s plans to make Elm Court a vibrant, viable and contributing part of our Berkshires economy again. I live a few minutes away from Elm Court and have lived in the Berkshires for almost 30 years. But it is my recent experience of living on Travaasa’s property in Austin, Texas, that I believe might add additional perspective to the above.

    First, disclosure. I lived in the Gate House at the edge of the bird sanctuary of which Travaasa Austin is an integrated part because my wife, Kristine Huffman, ran the resort as General Manager. But she no longer works for Travaasa Experiential Resorts. So while I was obviously not a disinterested observer there and I do root for Travaasa here, I do not now have any personal interests in them succeeding with their Elm Court application or not.

    I can tell you first hand how sincerely Travaasa views the integrity of the natural environment where they operate through this example: the previous owners had left an unsightly trailer and broken down truck at a spot on the bird preserve. Another site had been used to dump rusty water tanks. No guests would ever see these eyesores, there was no commercial incentive to do it, but Travaasa nevertheless chose to pay to remove them and take steps for nature to restore those parts of the preserve.

    I can tell you first hand that (Travaasa president) Adam Hawthorne was not exaggerating when he told the ZBA meeting that Travaasa hires people with passion for their work and their property. That was certainly the case at Travaasa Austin. I volunteered some at the organic farm that is part of the guest experiences. My experience included harvesting some 250 pounds of beets. Travaasa gave a couple of young farmers the chance to pretty much create the farm from scratch. I delighted in the enthusiasm with which Kim and Joe shared and taught and labored. Just as I delighted in the wisdom with which Travaasa’s cowboys created daily equine experiences, bonding experiences really, between guests and horses.

    A couple of the cowboys became cherished friends. Travaasa was named one of Austin’s ten best workplaces (and first in hospitality). I have no doubt that however Travaasa will tailor its guest experiences at Elm Court to our Berkshires environment and culture, they will strive to replicate Travaasa Austin’s model: the same respectful integration of place with a team of people who love what they do and love to share that with their guests and the community at large.

  2. GMHeller says:

    Best of luck to Front Yard, LLC, but perhaps it would be wise to heed the fact that Robert and Sonya Berle were unable, despite sinking gobs of money and time into painstakingly rebuilding and renovating the Vanderbilt-Wilde-Berle Family estate at Elm Court, to make a go of a high-end resort of the place. It’s not as if these folks didn’t try.
    It’s also relevant in Front Yard, LLC’s attempt to resurrect the glory that once was that The Berle’s are the ones holding Front Yard’s mortgage on the 90-acre property, not some bank.
    One would think given the alleged success of Front Yard parent Amstar’s other far-flung operations that the company could facilitate finding a bank somewhere on the planet (Austin TX, Maui, Berkshire County) to loan it the capital to buy and develop the Elm Court property.
    When sale of a piece of property involves a buyer getting a seller to ‘take back’ a mortgage, it’s usually a signal that the buyer, for whatever reason, has not — or cannot — or is unable to — obtain financing from other sources at reasonable terms.
    This is not a positive sign and does not signify a developer with deep pockets.
    This all begs an obvious question: Have any of the town boards — Stockbridge, Lenox — involved in granting any of the necessary permits allowing the proposed Elm Court development to proceed, has any town official considered requiring as a condition a substantial performance bond so that in case the whole thing goes belly-up before (or even after) construction is complete, that the property (and the towns and surrounding neighborhood) are not left to deal with an eyesore?

  3. GMHeller says:

    Recommended reading:
    Reviews of Travaasa Experiential Resorts on
    Travaasa Austin TX, for example, has a whole bunch of detailed reviews, many great, but enough not so great as to make one wonder what’s going on, especially given that Travaasa charges ultra-premium prices for its accommodations and services, but has, according to Berkshire Edge, “only four years experience in the hotel business”.
    Travaasa Experiental Resorts is set to manage Elm Court so it’s safe to assume that the future Travaasa Elm Court will generate reviews like these: SEE:

  4. Ritch says:

    Three quick things:
    1. Would it be possible to share more of the design imagery here? I would love to see how they intend to sensitively expand the estate.
    2. Great idea, GMHeller, regarding the performance bond. Another item we’ve discovered in our southern hometown has been the need to make granted variances “non-transferrable”, thus preventing the increase in perceived value on a property something that is lost should an owner decide to “flip” the property.
    3. And finally, great photo, Pam Sandler!

    1. Ritch says:

      OOPS! Color me embarrassed… I had no idea (or way of knowing, graphically) that this article was from 3 years ago! Edge staff, you may want to keep the YEAR in the headline date of the story.. things move so slowly in the Berkshires at times (like organic molasses) and years pass like moons.

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