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Developers Scale Back Great Barrington Hotel Proposal, Intend To Preserve 19th Century School

Plans for a hotel at a shuttered school in downtown Great Barrington have changed once again, this time quieting some of the opposition.“Searles’ main building will be saved,” said hotel developer and Great Barrington resident Vijay Mahida delivered that message during a continuation of a public hearing on special permitting for The Berkshire Wednesday night in Great Barrington.. “Last time there was confusion about plans for the main building. Let there be no confusion this time. We are saving the building and sensitively fixing the damage done many years ago by the town renovation.”

The updated plans drop the number of hotel rooms from 95 to 88 and preserve the exterior of the Searles School after developers heard calls to save the 19th century building. At issue is whether the proposal meets a town bylaw prohibiting a hotel with more than 45 rooms unless historical preservation is part of the effort. Town counsel says some of the school has to be saved, largely leaving the discretion of how much to the Select Board. Attorney Gavin Cockfield is working with the Mahida family on the project.

“The Searles building is basically staying the way it was long ago,” Cockfield said. “We’re going to reincorporate some things. The perimeter and density stay the same. So in that sense, I think it’s pretty easy to say we’re reusing and redeveloping the existing building.”

A citizen group called Save Searles School has been vocal about maintaining the building, which closed about 10 years ago. Michelle Miller says the Mahidas were and are willing to listen to concerns.

“Yes we have saved Searles and the diverse group which spoke up about this can certainly be pleased,” Miller said. “We have not been opponents; rather we have been essential to the process of getting the best possible project for Great Barrington. I believe that our work is not yet done. The final plans still bear consideration and the many questions raised tonight. I’m glad that the Selectmen are continuing to entertain our concerns and provide answers.” 

Adaptively reusing the building will add about 10 percent onto the roughly $25 million proposal and take longer to redevelop. The developers say even with the drop in rooms, the hotel will still bring in more than $450,000 in annual taxes. It will include a farm-to-table restaurant, meeting space and a pool. The Great Barrington Land Conservancy and River Walk are supporting the developers’ plans to make the nearby Housatonic River the focus of their mitigation requirement. Malcolm Fick, a member of the town’s Historical Commission, says most of the commission’s recommendations regarding reuse have been met.

“Now the one point that wasn’t is in my opinion significant and that is the gym,” Fick said. “The gym is probably the only example of WPA-era [New Deal Works Project Administration] architecture that we have in the town. It is distinctive in its design façade and features. It’s a shame to see it go.”

The developers say the only way to make the project work is to take down the gym. There are also concerns about increased traffic and parking. Plans call for 99 on-site and 40 off-site parking spaces with a ball field, businesses and homes nearby. After previous development plans didn’t pan out years ago when the town still owned the school, some at the meeting called for the town to hire a consultant to independently review the hotel proposal and its viability. Steve McAllister says he feels better about the project with the school being saved, but still has concerns.

“I don’t believe it will fail,” McAllister said. “I believe it will be a great success when it’s fully designed, built and operational. If not, the worst that we’ve got is a renovated historical building. Which we don’t have right now. And we have a building that would have other potential uses. So there’s really not much to lose if the numbers aren’t quite right.”

The meeting will continue February 22nd at 6 p.m. at Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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