Category Archives: Development pressures

Due Diligence?

Anyone who has been involved in the ongoing struggle to prevent a monstrous big-box style franchise-ready motel — not unlike the one that now looms over Route 7 north of Lenox — from being dropped into the middle of a historic, residential neighborhood, will remember the spectacle of a red-faced Amstar CEO Gabe Finke lecturing and chastising  the “little people” gathered inside the Stockbridge Town Hall.

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HOW DARE YOU GET IN MY WAY

Having heard Finke express Amstar’s long-term commitment to the well-being of the town and for the careful restoration of Elm Court, grandly throwing in an offer to pay for a controversial, unwanted and unnecessary sidewalk that would forever change the character of the road and the neighborhood, the curious reader might ask: where is Gabe Finke now? For that matter, where is Amstar?

Amstar Group, the real estate fund that owns the Travaasa brand, represents one part of the global real estate holdings of German billionaire industrialist Otto Happel, with a family office based in Lucerne, Switzerland. Finke once worked for Happel, but roughly a year ago the boss apparently had enough. Who knows what the distinguished Mr. Happel made of the Elm Court acquisition and the absurd plan to hatch a luxury resort in the middle of a neighborhood overwhelmingly opposed; what we do know is that Finke was shown the door in a split described in the business press as a “messy divorce”, with Amstar Advisors (Finke still at the helm) parting company with Amstar Group.

A year later, even the name is gone: Finke re-incorporating as Ascentris. We note the complete absence of any holdings in the hospitality industry in the revamped Ascentris portfolio. In any event, Finke, the man who hoodwinked a naive Stockbridge Select Board, is long gone from the Elm Court scene. So much for long-term commitments!

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WHICH SHELL HIDES THE PEA?

 

None of the town boards reviewing the proposal seemed at all concerned that Amstar Group lacks a track record in the hospitality industry; by industry standards the Travaasa “brand” is both too small (a mere two resorts in operation) and too young to have been adequately tested by market cycles. In any event, Amstar Group is not in the hospitality business. They are in the “cradle to grave” portfolio flipping business.

We predict that such lack of basic due diligence regarding the private partner in this high-impact and dumb-growth project will come to haunt both towns with a long list of unintended consequences. If the monstrous thing is ever built. Maybe the honorable Mr. Happel will finally have a closer look at where his money is being spent, grasp the fundamental unsustainability of the idea, and pull the plug.

Occupy Elm Court

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From our perspective, the public review of the Front Yard/Amstar proposal for Elm Court represents a Berkshires variation on a “too big to fail” bail-out, strikingly similar to the sorts of public bail-outs of fraudulent corporate activities during the financial crisis of 2008-2009, bail-outs that precipitated the Occupy movement.

In the case of Elm Court, a wealthy family (Vanderbilt-Wilde-Berle) has allowed their sprawling mega-mansion to decay, and then has effectively transferred the cost of the repair to the public, by selling the derelict property to a corporate “partner” who will dump a four-story spa hotel into the heart of our densely settled residential neighborhood, all in the name of “saving” Elm Court.

We are disappointed that our local boards appear to be playing along with this toxic bail-out, without giving serious, detailed consideration to the carefully researched and wide-ranging objections submitted by the neighborhood.

Elm Court is not the only history worth preserving. Our neighborhood, including other former Gilded Age properties such as Bishop Estate and Winden Hill, has its own strong, vital history worthy of respect and preservation. Instead, we now face a future of digital speed signs, road-widenings and other so-called traffic calming measures that will forever change one of the most distinctive and appealing roads in the Berkshires. Over the long run, this will be seen as a profound loss to the town, and to the Berkshires.

Why has everyone — from Selectmen to town staff — so passively lined up behind such a preposterous scheme, without exploring more sustainable and more reasonable alternative uses? Why is the disrepair of a private property, once owned by one of the wealthiest families in United States history, a matter of public interest? Is there some deeply entrenched pattern of obedience to the Lord of the Manor in play here?

From the start of this long process, the applicant has refused to budge on the core issues of massive scale and high intensity of use. We hope that the Lenox ZBA will listen carefully to the depth and seriousness of our concerns, and impose strict conditions on the special permit, introducing a measure of moderation and balance to Front Yard LLC’s monolithic proposal.

Without such moderation and restraint, Front Yard can be  sure that the neighborhood will be openly hostile to their wretched big-box “Travaasa” spa-hotel for many years to come. Further, the town of Lenox will have alienated an entire neighborhood by selling us out to a shadowy real estate “fund” who successfully played rope-a-dope with town boards, slipping through review with major aspects of their plans left undisclosed and undiscussed.

The problem with such actions? Public trust and good will are currencies you can only spend once. Once they are gone, they are likely gone for a long time.

Neither Restored Nor Preserved

SAVE THE MANSION AND DESTROY THE NEIGHBORHOOD?

SAVE THE MANSION AND DESTROY THE NEIGHBORHOOD?

Architectural historian Carole Owens has written an excellent essay for the Berkshire Edge. Her analysis of the relationship between the “cottagers” and the Berkshire economy is well worth reading in its entirety. We excerpt only the concluding paragraphs below:

Another big change is that today corporations not individuals are developing properties. The difference in density and land use is significant. Elm Court is an example. Instead of a single family residence (however grand), the developers propose 112 bedrooms, a 60 seat restaurant, and a spa. The original house is 53,538 square feet and the addition is over 52,000 square feet for a total over 105,500 square feet. The developers project 100 jobs on the site. Elm Court sits on 90 acres, and next, without undue legal machinations, the developers could build homes or town homes on the massive acreage as they did at Wyndhurst and Erskine Park. If they did, the concentration of commercial and residential square footage and people on that site, in that corner of Stockbridge, would be greater than on Main Street Stockbridge. Developers could create the new town of Stockbridge next door to the old: hard to overestimate the impact.

Is the impact negative or positive? The arguments made in the affirmative were that the project would create jobs and save an architectural gem. However, jobs in the Berkshire hospitality industry are most often lower-paid and seasonal. And it is hard to argue that the plan for Elm Court is preservation. The proposed addition is a change in size and style so significant that is cannot be identified as a model of preservation or even a restoration.

Will corporate development help or harm the Berkshires? In the absence of hard facts, an argument could be made either way. However, we already know two things: corporate development is distinctly different from a return of the Cottagers, and second, the Stockbridge Select Board made a mistake approving the Elm Court plan.

It was an error for three reasons: first the citizenry opposed it; second the fundamental nature of Berkshire County is to be sparsely populated and the fundamental nature of corporate development is to propose density, and third Elm Court established a frightening precedent for how the remaining cottages in Stockbridge can be used.

Round Two

As reported by the Berkshire Eagle, Front Yard LLC recently submitted its application for a Special Permit to the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals. The Lenox Zoning Bylaw identifies conditions for approval that are strikingly similar to the Stockbridge criteria, though they were largely  ignored or trivialized by the Stockbridge Selectmen.

Those six specific areas of concern are highlighted below, in bold. We trust that the Lenox ZBA, with input from the Planning Board, and from truly independent consultants, will carefully consider the long list of questions that went unanswered in Stockbridge.

1. Community needs served by the proposal.

Has the applicant persuasively demonstrated the need for yet another spa resort in our community? What market analysis and demographic projections have they submitted to substantiate the need for this resort? What is their business model, and how does it compare to other large resorts such as the recently permitted Spring Lawn development? What impact will this massive development have on our B & Bs and existing inns and resorts?

As for claims of new jobs: have they submitted detailed information as to the wage and salary structure of their proposed staff? Will these wages and salaries permit employees to actually live in Lenox, with their children attending Lenox schools?

Does this proposal meet the statewide criteria for “Smart Growth”? The answer to that would be an obvious “NO”, in stark contrast to the Spring Lawn development, which does in fact meet most of those criteria. Numerous young (21 and under) Berkshire residents stated during the Stockbridge “hearing” that their vision of the future Berkshire economy centers on local food production, small creative businesses and sustainable enterprises, NOT on franchise-style resorts such as the proposed big-box annex at Elm Court. Such testimony fell on deaf ears. While many will pay lip service to the “needs of Berkshire young people”, very few ever listen to what they have to say.

We urge everyone within the process to keep in mind that the parent company Amstar is not in the resort or hospitality business; they make their money on the exit from properties. There is no guarantee that the “Travaasa” brand will be around in five years from now, let alone a generation or two. What happens when they flip the property to Hilton, who then flips to Holiday Inn, and onwards down the food chain?

2. Traffic flow and safety, including parking and loading.

The materials submitted by the applicant are restricted to idiotic “level of service” traffic studies, using a methodology that is truly in the dark ages of pseudo-science. Our position from the start has been that this methodology may be fine for evaluating whether to put another Dunkin’ Donuts in downtown Pittsfield, but is wholly irrelevant to evaluating the impact of dropping a 112 room mega-resort into an historic, residential neighborhood. Our concerns center around safety, having to do with the road topography and alignment characteristics, as well as with speeding and other driving behaviors that suggest that adding a major new category of traffic will end in tragedy.

Beyond those “big picture” concerns: how will staff be trained to arrive and depart work? How will large commercial service vehicles be routed, to mitigate safety and noise concerns in the neighborhood? How will guests be directed to arrive to the resort?

Much has been written about the idea of a sidewalk; it should be clear that while there are some neighborhood residents who favor a sidewalk, there are many others who believe that such an “amenity” will further destroy the character of our neighborhood. Surely, such a major project can only be pursued on the basis of solid consensus. At present, there is no such consensus – far from it!

3. Adequacy of utilities and other public services.

We are aware that there is adequate capacity at present to serve the water and waste needs of the proposed development. However, large projects inevitably carry unforeseen consequences, and thus it is prudent to make sure that the town is protected should the sewage hit the proverbial fan in the future. To build new town infrastructure just because because a single corporate land owner promises to pay for it (short term) represents a terrible way to conduct local planning. It’s the sort of impulsive money-grabbing that invariably creates major headaches down the road.

4. Neighborhood character and social structures.

The most respected neighborhood character expert in New England expressed dismay that such a massive project would ever be considered in a low-key, family oriented neighborhood such as Old Stockbridge Road. His detailed report is available here, and summarized here. For a general description of existing neighborhood character from the point of view of those who live here, see this post.

There is a persistent rumor that the applicant intends to market the Elm Court facility as a regional Wedding Mill, with multiple weddings scheduled every day of the wedding season. Such intensive use (particularly on weekends) would have massive impacts on the ability of residents to enjoy their properties in peace and quiet, as well as raising serious safety concerns of alcohol use and driving on our hilly, winding road. Reasonable limits must be placed on the hosting of weddings and other such events, e.g. one per weekend.

Similarly, the restaurant should not be open to the public; does the town of Lenox truly suffer from a dearth of restaurant options? We think not.

5. Impacts on the natural environment.

Much has been said about how this proposal protects “open space”; yet there is presently no guarantee that this is not merely Phase A of a far more intensive development yet to come in Phase B and Phase C, via townhouses, condos, mansion “units” and other amenities such as tennis courts, stables, etc. Will the applicant agree to placing a Conservation Restriction on the rest of the property, held by the Lenox Land Trust, or by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council?

6. Potential economic and fiscal impact to the Town, including impact on town services, tax base, and employment.

We do not know what the impact will be; and in the absence of a professional, independent study and analysis based on hard data from the hospitality industry, neither does anybody else. It is easy to say that “all development is positive”, but what happens if, over the long term, as this resort slides down the hospitality industry food chain, the value of adjacent properties (most of which are in Lenox) depreciates by 30%, or even 50%? What happens to the tax base then? Or: what happens if this resort is the final blow to our B & Bs, most of which are already struggling to sustain themselves? Lenox could well end up with a net fiscal loss to the Town, a loss that will make any short-term fee revenues appear like fool’s gold.

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Following the one-sided and unfair process that unfolded in Stockbridge, we trust that the Lenox Planning Board and ZBA will consider all issues objectively, with particular attention to the legitimate and deeply held concerns of abutters and other directly impacted neighbors and longstanding town citizens, concerns that were summarily dismissed during the sham process in Stockbridge.

We urge that Town Manager Chris Ketchen, Town Planner Gwen Miller and members of both the Planning Board and ZBA walk (not just drive) down Old Stockbridge Road, and get a sense for the neighborhood and the character of the road, from ground level. We extended this same invitation to the Stockbridge Selectmen, though it seems they were only willing to attend tea & champagne parties at Elm Court.

A Very Bad Fit

Among the many materials ignored by the Stockbridge Board of Selectmen during their kangaroo hearing, there was a report researched and submitted by a nationally recognized expert on neighborhood character, Dr. John Mullin.  He writes:

There is no definition of the neighborhood in the submitted material. Concerning the physical characteristics, it is a long settled and established neighborhood, marked by the gentle curves and slopes of a narrow scenic road, without the need of sidewalks. It is a place of multigenerational families, committed to place and community, who enjoy the seasons and the natural environment. Their homes can be characterized by steady reinvestment with a significant number relying on their own water and sewer systems. I would ask the applicant to compare these traits with their proposal to determine the degree of compatibility between the neighborhood and the project. It would appear that they are not.

Dr. Mullin then includes an excellent chart that compares the values and qualities of the neighborhood to the values and qualities of the proposed resort. This chart clearly demonstrates that dropping a corporate mega-resort into an established residential neighborhood is a very bad fit.

chart

Did the Stockbridge board of Selectmen consider these excellent points? Of course not, since their minds had already been made up, many months before. They smelled money, and figured there was no downside to a project where the revenues would accrue to Stockbridge at the expense of a neighborhood that was located for the most part in Lenox. People in the neighborhood were belittled, bullied and ignored.

So will the various Lenox boards pay closer attention to the expertise and analysis of Dr. Mullin? We hope so, but it seems that many towns don’t care anymore about neighborhoods or families: corporations, and their interests, rule the roost. Unfortunately for our towns, such a large and ill-considered scheme is likely to carry very substantial unintended consequences, and the smell of money may quickly turn into a far less welcome stench.

We urge Lenox board members to exercise maximum due diligence and to pay close attention to every aspect of this project, above all, input from the people who actually live here.

A Few Pertinent Facts

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UNTROUBLED BY FRESH QUESTIONS AND NEW INFORMATION

On the evening of September 8, in a decision likely to go down in Stockbridge history as the worst ever, and one that may haunt the town mightily in years to come, the three sitting members of the town Board of Selectmen (BOS), acting as the Special Permit Granting Authority (SPGA), gave permission to Front Yard LLC to proceed with their plans to drop a huge commercial resort into the middle of an existing residential neighborhood. For fee payments and tax income that may well turn out to be illusory, the BOS thereby sold out the longstanding residents of Old Stockbridge Road, some of whom have been there for decades, and many of whom actually bought their lots from previous owners of Elm Court.

One young citizen who attended the meeting told us that he was so disturbed by what he had witnessed that he was questioning whether he wanted to continue to live in the Berkshires. Others told us they thought the entire process had been a sham. Though equally shocked by the refusal of the SPGA to carefully weigh and consider relevant factual evidence, all of the evidence, through rational deliberations, we were not at all surprised by what transpired over the course of the hearing. We had facts that strongly suggested that the decision to approve had already been made, way back in 2012. But don’t take our word for it; here are their own minutes.

FACT I

For the BOS meeting of June 13, 2012, we find the following, with red highlighting added for emphasis; the “Chris” mentioned is Chris Manning, the now-departed former President of Travaasa: BOSjune13 Mr. Shatz knew that he would eventually preside over the hearing for a special permit as the Chair of the SPGA, yet there he was back in 2012 actively coaching the applicant as to how they could slide a bylaw amendment designed to facilitate the approval of this one property through an unpredictable Special Town Meeting on zoning issues that was eventually scheduled for February 19, 2013. Even though that meeting was subsequently presented with an  incomplete and inaccurate description of the project, and even with all that preparation and help from the Selectmen, the amendment still did not pass. What to do?

FACT 2

Here we are on March 6, 2013:

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Owner Bob Berle and his attorney, David Hellman, who would subsequently become the attorney for Front Yard LLC, then went away and did what they were told: they crafted a freshly worded amendment, tailor made for Elm Court.

FACT 3

They return on March 27:

march272013 At the regular 2013 Town Meeting to follow, the BOS gave a ringing endorsement to this amendment, written by the owner’s attorney in consultation with the BOS; Amstar once again presented a partial and significantly smaller version of their plan; a few emotional pleas were made to “save Elm Court”; and the amendment finally passed.

Then came the time for those same three members of the BOS – Mr. Gillette, Ms. McMenamy and Mr. Shatz –  to put on their hats as the SPGA, a role in which they are supposed to have open minds throughout an objective and impartial process. Not easy for them to do, having been such eager and supportive Berle/Amstar cheerleaders for the previous two years!

Mr. Gillette, for example, thought that the Town Meeting vote on a bylaw amendment was an indication of unambiguous support for the project, and that his thinking cap could thus be placed on a high shelf somewhere; at least, such was the crux of his statement following the decision on Monday night. As for the Chairman Mr. Shatz, despite strong and relevant new information and analysis entered into the record, he was so convinced of the gratuitous irrelevance of his own SPGA hearing that he had already written up his findings before the evening had even begun!

We leave it up to each reader to reach their own conclusion regarding the ethics of all this, but we can comfortably assert that such behavior is highly irregular for an SPGA, and should raise serious questions, for all concerned residents of Stockbridge.

Do you want the same people who serve as boosters and political consultants for commercial developers to then preside over the permitting process? Is this good for the town and in the public interest, over the long term? Should not the members of the Stockbridge BOS, deeply involved in enabling this project through the bylaw amendment, have recused themselves as the SPGA, and deferred to their Zoning Board of Appeals? Again, we leave each reader to reach their own conclusion.

We close with Article XXIX of the Constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that expresses a noble, fundamental principle for the rule of law reaching all the way back to Magna Carta:

FACT 4

article29 To all those who witnessed this process, and to all those who have duly examined the above three excerpts from the Stockbridge BOS minutes: do you believe this properly high ethical standard has been met?