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A rendering of the hotel complex that is envisioned as part of the redevelopment of the abandoned Eagle Mill property in downtown Lee, Massachusetts.

Special permit in hand, Lee’s Eagle Mill developer is on a roll

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By Sunday, Nov 18, 2018 News

Update: On Monday, Nov. 19, the Eagle Mill project received site plan approval from the Lee Planning Board. The vote was unanimous, Cohen said.

Lee —The redevelopment of what has been called a “transformative” project for downtown Lee has taken yet another step forward with the approval on Wednesday of a special permit to work in a flood plain.

At its Nov. 14 meeting, the Lee Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously approved the special permit for Mill Renaissance LLC to revive and reuse the decaying Eagle Mill property in downtown Lee. The large-scale redevelopment project is expected to cost $60 million and create hundreds of jobs. 

Jeffrey Cohen, developer of the Eagle Mill Renaissance project.

“This special permit is critical,” Jeffrey N. Cohen, who heads Mill Renaissance, said in an Edge interview. “They went through everything. They asked all the right questions.” 

Cohen and his consultants, the well known S.K. Design Group of Pittsfield among them, have made several presentations to the Planning Board. They are confident they have been responsive enough to receive site plan approval when the board meets Monday night (Nov. 19). 

“That will be huge,” Cohen said. “It’s taken six years … there’s an element of trust between our team and the town.” 

Then on Dec. 3 the town Conservation Commission, which enforces the state Wetlands Protection Act, is expected to rule on Cohen’s notice to proceed with work in the floodplain. With that approval in hand, the only other go-aheads he will need from the town are building permits for individual structures. 

The current status of the moribund Eagle Mill property in Lee.

The Eagle Mill project reached perhaps its most important milestone last month when local and state officials, including Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, visited the mill to announce a $4.9 million MassWorks Infrastructure Program grant to upgrade water lines and support residential and commercial development. 

In late 2017, Mill Renaissance purchased the property from the Quinn family for $700,000. At that time, Cohen also secured the services of DEW Construction Corporation as general contractor and as a partner. Mill Renaissance is a 50-percent owner of Eagle Mill Redevelopment LLC, while DEW Properties LLC owns the other half. 

The MassWorks grant will fund 9,000 linear feet of new water main from the town’s water treatment plant to the Eagle Mill mixed-use development at the north end of Main Street. That funding provides a foundation for 80 market rate and affordable rental units at Eagle Mill, as well as commercial and recreational spaces, likely including a 74-room hotel.

A rendering of the future Eagle Mill marketplace.

A rendering of the retail complex envisioned for the Eagle Mill redevelopment.

There will also be a public market or food “marketplace” as part of Cohen’s complex. The vision for the marketplace includes food kiosks and stalls featuring a variety of cuisine and perhaps a space for entertainment — not unlike a mini-version of Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace or, in St. Paul, Minn., Keg and Case, which Cohen’s son Craig Cohen developed.

Another hurdle was cleared when zoning was changed to allow residential development on the Eagle Mill property, which was zoned as industrial. Earlier this year the town enacted a so-called “smart-growth” 40R overlay district, a state law whose goal is to increase the supply of housing by increasing the amount of land zoned for dense housing in existing city and town centers, thus driving down the cost of that housing. The law also requires the inclusion of affordable units in most eligible projects. 

A rendering of the Eagle Mill Renaissance development in downtown Lee.

Meanwhile, as Cohen is lining up financing from local banks, Rees-Larkin Development, a Boston-based developer of affordable and mixed-income housing and a partner in the housing portion of the Eagle Mill project, is looking for funding from the state, mostly in the form of low-income housing tax credits. The manager of the apartments will be Berkshire Housing Development Corporation.

In Berkshire County, Rees-Larkin was the lead developer in the renovation of 100 units of affordable housing at the Dalton Apartments in Pittsfield. In that venture, Jon Rudzinski, head of Rees-Larkin, gained approval from the state for the federal low-income housing tax credits, which provided approximately $3.2 million in equity.

In addition to site plan approval and conservation commission approval, Cohen must obtain allocation of historic tax credits and additional commercial financing.  

Cohen thinks prospects for receiving the needed historic tax credits for the Eagle Mill project are good but he cautioned that, unlike the MassWorks grant, which was under the auspices of the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker, who is familiar with the Eagle Mill project, the historic tax credits fall under the jurisdiction of the office of Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin.

A rendering of the residential units planned for the Eagle Mill Renaissance project.

Cohen said he is working with three banks to secure almost $20 million in commercial financing for the nonresidential portion of the project. Click here to see a comprehensive list of the components of the project, along with visual renderings.

The addition of the food marketplace at Eagle Mill could come in handy with the loss of the Price Chopper in downtown Lee last year. Michael Charles and Brian Cohan, principals of the Lenox-based Benchmark Development, are looking to demolish the building and develop the site into a mixed-use complex similar to their latest, Powerhouse Square in Great Barrington.

Cohen and a group of investors have also bought the historic former Lee train station at 109 Railroad Street, which was most recently home to a restaurant, Sullivan Station, that closed early last year.

Cohen said the best-case scenario is for the project to be fully funded, with financing in place, and to break ground in the first quarter of 2020. The project is expected to generate roughly 200 jobs.

“That will change Lee,” Cohen said. “There will be so many jobs that they won’t know where to work.”

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