Housatonic — The town of Great Barrington has taken a significant step in ridding itself of the former Housatonic School, drafting an elaborate 19-page request for proposals from organizations that might want to purchase or lease the 110-year-old school.
The “RFP,” as it’s called, follows a “selection-criteria” document for the school prepared earlier this year by Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin that laid out a series of objectives and “creative development schemes” in either selling or renting the building — a former community elementary school that opened in 1909 and has remained mostly empty since 2003 when the Berkshire Hills Regional School District consolidated its schools with a new elementary — and middle — school campus on Monument Valley Road. When the school closed, the town assumed ownership of the property from the school district.
Weighing heavily on the minds of the Select Board members who met last Monday (May 1) briefly before the annual town meeting to discuss the document was the specter of the old Great Barrington firehouse.
“The firehouse wasn’t the best RFP process and hopefully we won’t get bogged down in that,” said Selectman Dan Bailly.
Tabakin’s predecessor Kevin O’Donnell in 2012 fashioned the agreement to sell the building, abandoned in 2010 after the fire department moved to its new $9.1 million headquarters on State Road, for $50,000 to Rochester, N.Y., banker Thomas Borshoff, and his partners, Great Barrington attorney Edward McCormick and Housatonic Water Works owner James Mercer.
The sale was controversial because of the low sale price and the fact that, starting in the second year of Borshoff’s ownership, the town began to pay $2,500 per month in rent, plus insurance and utilities, for office space for its building and health departments in a building it had previously owned. Plus, the town assumed responsibility for up to $270,000 in environmental remediation, primarily disposing of asbestos.
Borshoff had grand plans to renovate the historic structure into a culinary school and al fresco restaurant and using the rest of the space for vocational purposes and for the town historical society. But much to the frustration of all involved, the only visible work he has done so far is some work on a retaining wall in the alleyway to the north of the structure.
“It’s been three years since the firehouse [sale] and he hasn’t even swung a hammer in there,” Bailly said.
Bailly, who was on one of the task forces charged with recommending options for reuse of the school several years ago, noted that the RFP for the Housatonic School says the project must be developed “within a reasonable period of time.”
“Do we fall back on that?” Bailly asked.
“That’s where we got caught with the firehouse,” Select Board Chairman Sean Stanton agreed. “I agree we have to specify because otherwise we potentially end up in the same situation.”
Bailly suggested a timetable be written into a tax increment financing agreement (TIF) to be negotiated between the town and the buyer. “Before you get the purchase-and-sales agreement, you’ll need to deal with this stuff,” Tabakin said.
The RFP markets not only the school building itself but the proximity of four other buildings on the National Register of Historic Places: the Housatonic Congregational Church, Monument Mills, the Rising Paper Mill and the Ramsdell Public Library. Also mentioned are the cultural and entertainment venues in the region.
Perhaps in response to the initial plans of hotelier Vijay Mahida to demolish the former Searles Middle School and build a hotel in its place, the RFP tells any developer of the Housatonic School that “the building must be preserved, and the historic exterior and architectural features maintained and protected.”
In addition, the proposed use of the building “must provide benefits to the community and town in critical areas,” including support for local businesses, job creation and “support for local economic sectors and community services.”
And there are specific terms regarding environmental obligations and land use, along with legal and regulatory compliance and acceptability of design and maintenance plans.
The problem of what to do with closed school buildings is not isolated to Berkshire County. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1,200 and 2,200 schools close in the U.S. each year. Some, such as Cheshire Elementary School, are closed because enrollments have declined and others such as Housatonic and Searles, because new school buildings have taken their place.
The problem with repurposing schools is they were all built for a specific purpose: educating students. The structures are not flexible in the same way as a warehouse that can be partitioned off into customized spaces. And older school buildings often have environmental problems. In the case of the Housatonic School, it’s asbestos. In the case of another school, it might be buried heating-oil tanks that have leaked over the years, creating contaminated soil that must be removed and remediated at great expense.
As a result, closed schools are often taken over by charter schools or eventually sold to wealthy developers such as Mahida, who have the resources to spend a lot of money on pricey renovations. The former Bryant School, which sits right next to Searles, was purchased several years ago by Jane Iredale Mineral Cosmetics and underwent extensive renovations to transform it into Iredale’s new LEED-certified corporate headquarters. It is widely considered a model of adaptive reuse and environmental responsibility.
And even when a school sits dormant, it can create problems. Some attract crime and vagrants. All vacant schools still require maintenance, lest they fall into complete disrepair and pose a liability and a safety hazard. Many Berkshire County residents have probably driven by the former Roeliff Jansen School on Route 22 in nearby Copake, N.Y. That school has sat vacant since it was closed in 1999. According to one report, in 2010 the Milwaukee Public Schools spent more than $1 million a year to maintain 27 surplus school buildings.
RFPs soliciting potential buyers or others who would want to use the Housatonic School were sent out in 2010 and again in 2012. More than two years ago, the town sent out another RFP but nothing came of it.
For a couple of years after the school closed, the Berkshire Hills administrative team rented the Housatonic School for its offices but ultimately decided to relocate to the aforementioned Stockbridge Plain School.
The nonprofit Multicultural BRIDGE was based in the Housatonic School until 2007, when it moved temporarily to Pittsfield and then to Muddy Brook Elementary School. The Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire responded to the first request for proposals from the town, proposing a mixed-use combination of housing and commercial space, but the proposal died.
The adjacent Housie Dome, which now functions as a community center and contains the former school’s gymnasium, will not be a part of the deal. The school’s playground is now a town park and also will not be marketed as part of a potential sale, Tabakin has said. So in any adaptive reuse of the building, neither the Housie Dome spots nor the playground itself could be used for parking, further complicating the marketing effort for the building.
Compounding the problem is the cost of remediation and code compliance. An independent study submitted to the town in 2012 by a building consultant found that any developer looking to renovate the building is facing a liability of at least $850,000 in required remediation of asbestos and lead paint hazards.
Including the removal of the asbestos and lead, and the construction of an elevator needed to bring the building into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, the total estimated cost of a renovation would be almost $1.9 million, not including design costs.
Even demolition would probably run in the range of $1.4 million, in part because the asbestos and lead would still have to be disposed of properly, the study found. The town’s task force, however, estimated demolition costs at only $400,000.
Tabakin said the Housatonic School RFP will be advertised on the state’s central register on Wednesday, May 10 and in newspapers starting May 12, with responses due June 30. Optional site visits will take place on Friday, June 2, at 2 p.m.