Lee — After a series of wins, the developer of the Eagle Mill complex has been dealt a setback, or what the developer calls “a proverbial bump in the road.”
In a Dec. 20 letter to Eagle Mill Redevelopment, Brona Simon of the Massachusetts Historical Commission raised questions about “several historic homes” on West Center Street slated for demolition to allow for a possible hotel on the property.
The development group is seeking roughly $5.7 million each in federal and state historic rehabilitation tax credits as part of a $60 million project to revive and expand the historic mill site in downtown Lee into a combination of office space, both market-rate and affordable rental units, a hotel and a “public market” with multiple restaurants and food kiosks.
Jeffrey N. Cohen, who heads Eagle Mill Redevelopment, told The Edge, “When I first read the letter, I was disappointed. We’ve had so many wins. But we’re fixing this.”
It’s a classic glass half-full-half-empty situation. The good news is that MHC has now certified that Eagle Mill’s part-one application has received a stamp of approval — or “initial certification” — from the state.
The MHC has now determined that the Eagle Mill meets the definition of a “qualified historic structure.” The commission has further determined that all buildings in the mill complex are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places “as contributing resources to a potential historic district,” Cohen said. That initial certification is key to receiving the historic tax credits for the project to move forward.
“That’s a finding that is of great benefit,” Cohen said. “They’re saying, ‘Your building’s eligible to be on the historic register.”
Most of the standards the MHC says the project would violate are technical and easily remedied, Cohen explained. Nonetheless, as a result, MHC says the proposed project does not meet the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s standards for the rehabilitation of historic properties. The MHC objected to some first-floor entrances, as well as some ceilings, windows and roof materials.
“Those are fairly routine and not unusual,” Cohen said of the MHC’s concerns. “You don’t ever get an approval of your plans as submitted. There are always concerns that the applicant do certain things differently.”
But the MHC’s concerns about the demolition of the homes on the site is a different matter. Cohen acknowledged that, if the MHC insists on preserving the homes, “It would be a deal-breaker” that would affect access to the site, limit parking and “put the potential hotel in jeopardy.”
The MHC, however, did encourage Cohen to re-apply in the next application cycle, which would require a response from Cohen by Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. An announcement of the next round of tax credits from MHC is expected in March. Officials at MHC were not available for comment over the weekend.
Cohen insists the homes are not historic. The mill was constructed in 1808 and houses were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Other than their proximity, they were not connected to the mill in any way.
The homes will need to be removed in order to make room for the proposed hotel. The MHC wants to see historical and architectural information about the houses and their historical association with Eagle Mill.
The demolition of the homes is not actually in the Eagle Mill application, nor was it required to be. MHC had learned of their planned demolition through the Eagle Mill Redevelopment website and through media reports.
“I think Mass Historical has been reasonable in asking the question since it’s a legitimate issue to raise, though not an applicable circumstance,” Cohen said.
Cohen said he has confirmed that the houses were never occupied by the mill or used by the mill for any purposes. Over the years since their construction, the houses were “all significantly altered over time and are in disrepair.”
There are seven structures. Almost all of them were built as single-family homes and were converted into apartment buildings and multi-use commercial properties. Furthermore, Cohen said the Lee Historical Commission has declared the houses to be blighted.
“Old doesn’t mean historic,” Cohen opined.
Schweitzer Mauduit International, now doing business as SWM, was primarily a manufacturer of paper for tobacco companies. The company closed the sprawling mill on the banks of the Housatonic in downtown Lee in 2008, resulting in the loss of 165 factory jobs. Also closed was a plant in Lenox Dale.
After years of planning, in late 2017, Eagle Mill Redevelopment formally 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.
Before this latest bump in the road, Eagle Mill Redevelopment had enjoyed a string of victories, even as the project expanded in scope. The company had secured needed zoning revisions, including the establishment of a so-called “smart-growth” 40R overlay district, site-plan approval from the Lee Planning Board and a special permit to work in a floodplain.
The Eagle Mill project reached perhaps its most important milestone in October 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.
That MassWorks grant will fund 9,000 linear feet of new water main from the town’s water treatment plant to the Eagle Mill 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.
Cohen and a group of investors have also bought the historic former Lee train station at 109 Railroad St., which was most recently home to a restaurant, Sullivan Station, that closed early last year.
The developer has said the best-case scenario is for the Eagle Mill project to be fully funded, with the necessary commercial financing in place, and to break ground in the first quarter of 2020. The project is expected to generate roughly 200 jobs.
“I’m encouraged because these are all issues we can address,” Cohen said of the MHC’s concerns about the second phase. “There are always going to be bumps in road, even though we’re disappointed when they arise. We’ll get through it and we’ll deal with it.”