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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”