Hotel Proposal Stirring Debate In Great Barrington
A proposal to open a 95-room hotel at the site of a shuttered school in Great Barrington is drawing the ire of some residents while the developer sees it as a boost for the Southern Berkshire County town.79 Bridge Street Realty, LLC is going before the Great Barrington Select Board December 16th to detail updated plans for the Searles School. Completed in 1898, the school closed about 10 years ago because of regional consolidation. It is owned by Jane Iredale’s family, whose cosmetic headquarters sits next to the property in another former school. Now the Mahida family, which has a string of hotels in the Berkshires, want to build a $25 million upscale, boutique 95-room hotel called The Berkshire. Dave Carpenter is the director of administration for the Mahida Family Hospitality Interests.
“It will have a restaurant, pool, fitness center and corporate meeting space,” Carpenter said. “It’s a full-service hotel meaning it has a bellman and a gift shop. Very uniquely it has a library that is going to feature the books and artifacts on the history of the Housatonic River. I think that’s a neat little feature because the river walk actually starts right at the Searles location.”
The developers are updating their plans after Great Barrington’s town counsel said “some” of the school has to be saved. The opinion came because a town bylaw prohibits construction of hotels with more than 45 rooms unless the project involves reuse of a historic structure. The developers worked with the historical commission to have the Searles school so designated.
Confident reuse is realistic, Bobby Houston is part of a group committed to saving the school.
“What was baffling right from the start was that the Mahida group and Jane Iredale had the building brought in front of the Historic Commission to be certified as a historic building and then in the very next sentence basically they said ‘Oh, P.S. we’re going to knock it down,’” Houston said. “So it was crazy making right from the start. The proposal just didn’t make sense.”
A website and Facebook page garnering more than 1,000 likes have served as message boards for like-minded people. Houston, an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and self-proclaimed small-fry developer, says he has offered the Iredale family half a million dollars for the school with the primary goal of saving it.
“There are so many incredible examples of schools and public buildings that have been repurposed,” Houston said. “The needs of the town will make themselves felt. There is a need for more density downtown. I personally think the locals bring more vitality and real business to a downtown.”
Houston, who is redeveloping greenhouses near the school, says the Iredale family has asked him to wait and see what comes of the Mahida’s plans since they have agreed to a contract for the site. Carpenter says a project of this financial size requires 95 rooms to be profitable. He says the hotel will employ about 30 people, generate more than $450,000 in annual taxes and be a shot in the arm for downtown.
“It’ll have the kind of impact that the Red Lion Inn has in downtown Stockbridge,” said Carpenter.
Responding to some opponents’ claims, Carpenter says there has been no end run regarding the school’s historical designation.
“Everything has been done according to town bylaws,” Carpenter said. “The Historical Commission was well aware, through their chairman, of what our plan was.”
The town’s historical commission is recommending preservation of the school’s key architectural features. Beth Carlson lives in Stockbridge, but works in Great Barrington. She’s heavily involved in the save the school effort and says there are those in town who don’t want a 95-room hotel.
“I have been looking at properties in Great Barrington, wanting to move to the neighborhood that would be most affected by this hotel,” Carlson said. “When I heard about this project I was like ‘Well, I don’t want to live near that project nor do I think I want to live in a town where this could happen.’”
Carpenter says whether the project goes forward lies with the Select Board. The developers will detail how they plan to reuse portions of the school at the December 16th meeting. They will also answer site specific questions at a Planning Board meeting Thursday.