Firm pitches affordable housing, business incubator for former Housatonic School

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GREAT BARRINGTON — For more than 10 years, it's been a 110-year-old ball and chain around the town's neck and a prominent shell in the heart of Housatonic village.

And after two rounds of proposal requests from the town, the former Housatonic School now has a taker that won't buy it, but that says it will, in a public-private partnership, carve it into spaces that will generate rent for the town.

Grayhouse Partners, a Housatonic-based construction and design firm, says if awarded the contract, it will begin plans to build seven affordable housing apartments and 14,000-square-feet of shared work and office space.

Members of the town Select Board last week said they needed time to study the proposal before further discussion or votes, and pushed the matter to their Oct. 16 meeting. 

The idea for the shared work space, according to Grayhouse President William Nappo, is to give startups and growing businesses "the latest and most sophisticated internet connectivity in an open environment that nourishes creativity and cross-fertilization of ideas."

So while the building wouldn't hit the tax rolls, Nappo said the town will get rent from the Grayhouse plan, and the plan might help the local economy in other ways. 

Already several letters have rolled in from people and organizations interested in leasing space there. A preliminary construction schedule shows about one year of design and construction for a January 2020 finish.

The former Housatonic School is one of three historic school buildings abandoned by the Berkshire Hills Regional School District in 2005 when it built its new elementary and middle schools at the Monument Mountain Regional High campus off Route 7. An analysis by the district had pegged the cost to bring the building up to code at just over $900,000.

And the town learned from a consultant in 2012 that asbestos and and paint remediation alone would run a developer about $850,000.

So while the former Bryant Elementary School in Great Barrington was transformed into Iredale Cosmetics' international headquarters, and the adjacent Searles Middle & High School was sold last year to local hotel developer Mahida Hospitality Interests, the Housatonic School has sat dormant.

People and organizations have expressed interest over the years, but nothing has hatched. 

The building was mothballed in 2013, dropping the annual cost to maintain it from around $45,000 to somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000, according to Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin. But she said this may not reflect the true total cost, however, since the town has had to make various repairs since 2013. 

In a letter to the Select Board, Nappo said this workspace would "act as a business incubator, harnessing the region's entrepreneurial spirit, creating jobs and economic opportunity for generations to come."

Nappo further said Grayhouse would renovate the building according to federal historic standards and use Great Barrington-based firm Clark & Green as the project architect.

According to Grayhouse's proposal, the company has experience restoring historic structures, including a restoration of the former West Stockbridge Town Hall for the town's Historical Society. 

Grayhouse also plans to team up with Community Development of South Berkshire, which will develop the affordable housing units.

Cost estimates and other details of the project have not yet been nailed down. Select Board member Ed Abrahams asked if more definitive information could be provided soon, including what the final agreement between the developers and the town might look like. 

Staff writer Heather Bellow can be reached at 413-329-6871.


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