Lee — With the formal acquisition of the abandoned Eagle Mill, developer Jeffrey N. Cohen’s plan to revive and reuse the decaying property in downtown Lee has entered a new phase.
A newly created development company, Eagle Mill Redevelopment LLC, closed on the property Dec. 27 at a purchase price of $700,000, Cohen told The Edge in an interview on Friday.
The seller was the Quinn family, which originally contracted with Cohen to sell it in January 2013 and had purchased the mill property in 2008. Cohen praised Quinn family members, especially estate manager Tim Quinn, for their “flexibility and patience.”
In another major bit of news, Cohen has secured the services of DEW Construction Corporation as general contractor and as a partner. Mill Renaissance LLC, Cohen’s company, is now a 50-percent owner of Eagle Mill Redevelopment LLC. DEW Properties LLC owns the other half.
“DEW is a very reputable, credible partner,” Cohen said.
And a developer, Berkshire Housing, has signed on. Berkshire Housing develops or manages several affordable and senior housing developments, including Bostwick Gardens in Great Barrington and Hyde Place in Lee.
“It was a tremendous holiday gift for us,” Cohen said. “And of course it opens the door wider to all of the challenges.”
The project, which will include both new construction and reuse of the mill, would add retail and office space, restaurants, a health club and pool open to the public, and in excess of 100 units of housing — with probably 80 percent affordable, and the rest market-rate. The existing mill will be renovated, while some of the accompanying metal buildings will be demolished.
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. A hotel is also a possibility, but more on that later.
The hurdles that still must be overcome to make the transformative $60 million project a reality remain numerous, but Cohen is confident he can build on the momentum of the progress he has already achieved with the purchase of the property, the signing of DEW and the very likely approval by voters of a new zoning bylaw next month.
For one thing, zoning must be changed to allow residential development on the property, which is zoned as industrial. So the town is considering enacting a so-called “smart-growth” 40R overlay district (SGOD), 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.
When towns adopt their own smart-growth zoning bylaws, they then become eligible for payments from a state fund that promotes smart growth, as well as other financial incentives. Lee will hold a special town meeting Jan. 25 to consider adopting its own smart-growth zoning district bylaw. Most observers think it will pass with little opposition.
The other obstacle that must be overcome concerns infrastructure. In order to provide adequate water service to the proposed development, the town must upgrade the water main that serves that northern downtown district, which most people think of as the area where Joe’s Diner is located.
The town applied in August for a $6 million MassWorks infrastructure grant from the state to fund the upgrade. That application was denied, according to Selectman Tim Wickham, though the town will submit another application soon.
“That’s not unusual,” Wickham said in an interview. “The state is helping out a lot with these types of projects. Secretary Ash is aware of what were trying to do”
Secretary Ash is Jay Ash, who heads the state Department of Housing and Economic Development, which administers the MassWorks infrastructure grants program.
“I think we’re more unique because you can’t put a shovel in the ground without water,” added Cohen.
Both Wickham and Cohen are convinced that the aforementioned progress will serve to convince Ash and his department of the worthiness of the Eagle Mill project.
“The more shovel-ready you are, the better you look,” Wickham said. “When you develop a property for $60 million and you have a construction partner, that is very good.”
Wickham, who also chairs the Lee Planning Board, added that the new main will not only service the Eagle Mill development but would improve water and fire hydrant service to all of that part of town since a new 6-inch main will replace aging 4-inch pipes.
In addition, Cohen also needs to obtain low-income housing tax credits from the state. And the historic approvals and historic tax credits he needed from state and federal authorities has been an arduous process, he told The Edge in 2016.
Fortunately, the tax reform bill recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump just before Christmas, did not eliminate historic tax credits altogether or drastically cut them, as some had feared.
“The tax bill retained a form of historic tax credits that is slightly different,” Cohen explained. “The pay-in period has changed, which makes them somewhat less valuable.”
Cohen says it is not yet clear what the transition rules will be or whether projects like his “might be grandfathered because we’re already in the process.” Click here to read an analysis of the tax legislation by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which had advocated strongly for retention of the historic tax credits.
Finally, Cohen must secure the purchase of six properties on West Center Street where he intends to site the approximately 100-room hotel. He says he is under contract to buy three of them but has not been able to reach an agreement with the others. If Cohen cannot come to final terms with those property owners, he will likely forgo the hotel and convert the lots he has purchased into parking lots for the Eagle Mill complex.
Cohen is especially enthusiastic about the public market aspect of the project. Mill Renaissance LLC, has reached a preliminary agreement with Marketplace Hospitality, a catering and cafe specialist based in Sheffield, to open a public market or food “marketplace” as part of Cohen’s complex. And he says he is in serious discussions with others as well.
The public market will feed into the prevailing wisdom about those young people from the so-called millennial generation: they like walkable living environments.
“Millennials will be able to walk in and get food any time of day,” Cohen said. “We will have two or three restaurants. It’ll just be a cool place. I see this as an entertainment and social opportunity — for them and others.”
Wickham is also enthusiastic about the project, though he says he is keeping his eye on what’s been successful. There are good examples of the reuse of old mills and factories in Berkshire County in recent years, including the thriving Mass MoCA in North Adams. That development project took the old Sprague Electric plant, a converted mill itself, and converted it more than 30-years ago into a sprawling world-class art museum.
There is an ongoing attempt by the town of Adams to restore the Cook Street Mill and turn it into a park. But there have also been failures, most notably when Miami developer Stephen Muss proposed to revive Monument Mills and create a riverfront village center in the Housatonic section of Great Barrington.
“We’re not the only town in the Berkshires with old mills,” said Wickham, by trade a master carpenter who has owned his own business for 30 years. “As a leader of the town, I always look to see what’s working.”
Another member of the Board of Selectmen, Patricia Carlino, said if the town applies for the MassWorks grant soon, as expected, town officials would know as early as March whether the money for the water main replacement would be forthcoming. Cohen said the other option would be for the town to “borrow the money, which would be more expensive for residents.”
“I’m optimistic for it,” Carlino said in an interview. “I hope it goes through the way it’s presented … We have been trying to promote the improvement of the downtown area. And I think it’ll also benefit the surrounding communities.”