Affordable Housing Project At Brownfield Site Stirs Opposition In Great Barrington

Aug 10, 2016

An affordable housing proposal on a brownfield site in Great Barrington, Massachusetts is facing opposition as a town board considers its approval.

The Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire wants to build 45 affordable housing units on the former New England Log Homes site at 100 Bridge St., two blocks from Main St. The nonprofit has been working on remediation and development of the 8-acre property, contaminated by industrial chemicals, for about 20 years. The CDC’s executive director Tim Geller says the group’s $45 million vision is an opportunity of a generation.

“The master plans includes 45 units of affordable rental apartments, 36 market-rate condominiums which will be medium and higher-end condominiums, about 30,000 square feet of commercial space and two acres of public park,” explained Geller.

The CDC is pursuing a permit from Great Barrington’s Zoning Board of Appeals for the $12 million affordable housing project on two acres. But, some area residents don’t think it’s a good idea, among them Bobby Houston.

“Affordable housing stacked up in what look like warehouses and it’s all along the waste treatment plant,” Houston said. “In other words, in the least desirable place.”

Houston, a building developer, was involved with the citizen group that worked to maintain portions of the former Searles School as a part of a hotel redevelopment. Having learned from that experience over the past year, Houston says many of those same people are now opposing the housing proposal. 

“There are other projects in the pipeline,” Houston said. “There is a project on State Rd. which is in the works. They are smaller scale projects. The trend in affordable housing, the progressive way to do it now is called ‘scatter siting’ where it’s integrated and distributed through the community rather than warehoused or stockpiled in one corner of a town. There are scatter sited projects that are in the pipeline now.”

The Great Barrington Select Board has recommended that the project go forward. It sent a list of conditions to the ZBA, including that no certificate of occupancy for the housing be granted until all eight acres are remediated. Geller says cleanup, what he calls a big earth-moving exercise, will be concurrent with initial construction so the entire site will be safe before residential and commercial use. Capping will also occur.

“Absolutely 100 percent of the site will be cleaned up,” Geller said. “We have a remediation plan that the strategy of which is approved by Mass. DEP [Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection]. Mass. DEP will be overseeing the entire remediation. There is no question that the health and safety of the neighborhood and Great Barrington residents are absolutely paramount for us and Mass. DEP.”

Geller says the affordable housing units will be available for individuals making less than $36,000 a year and families of four with an annual income lower than $51,000. He says those figures represent 60 percent of southern Berkshire County’s median income. More than half of Great Barrington’s residents would qualify, according to Geller. After extensive public conversation about the project, Geller says he is confident the CDC and ZBA will come to terms on conditions for the project to move forward. He says there is a rather universal understanding that affordable housing is needed in the region.

“The way the opposition has been articulated, it has not been one of opposition to having low- and moderate-income families living there,” Geller said. “It’s really been about inaccurate information regarding the cleanup and the overall development of the site.”

Houston is hopeful the ZBA sets strong conditions, saying many opponents want to see more affordable housing and in fact could personally benefit from low-cost rental units.

“We want this town to grow in a healthy, sensible way,” Houston said. “We don’t want to see mistakes made. Once something bad is built it stays built. If you are left with the leftover piece of a project like a bunch of apartment buildings standing next to a brownfield that is the worst possible outcome. We want to see that doesn’t happen.”

The ZBA meets at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Great Barrington Town Hall.