Category Archives: Development pressures

Size Matters

Many people still do not comprehend the size of the hotel “annex” under consideration. Here is a 96-room Courtyard by Marriott located not far away, in the Hadley/Amherst area:

96 ROOM COURTYARD BY MARRIOTT

96 ROOM COURTYARD BY MARRIOTT

And here is the proposed “annex”:

ELM COURT ANNEX HOTEL AS PROPOSED

ELM COURT ANNEX HOTEL AS PROPOSED:  THIS IS A VERY BIG CHUNKY HOTEL

Amstar is also proposing a 104 space parking lot, as their main “valet service” parking. The photo below shows 80 spaces — so add another row for good measure.

aerialparking

Finally, the proposed “spa” (who knows what it will really be used for) is another 15,500 square feet. Here is what that looks like, in the form of the “Sugar Land” Ballroom, located inside a Texas Marriott, famous as a wedding mill.

SUGAR LAND: COMING SOON TO ELM COURT!

SUGAR LAND BALLROOM @ 15500 SQUARE FEET: COINCIDENCE, OR COMING SOON TO ELM COURT?

Every aspect of the proposed resort is way too big. All historical value on the grounds and in the neighborhood will be crushed by this monstrous new “facility”. Those who claim that this is the only way to “save Elm Court” remind us of how Tacitus described the Roman legions: They make a desert and call it peace.

Alternative Futures

Supporters of the big-box franchise-style hotel “annex” plus the public spa and large restaurant now being proposed for Elm Court continue to play the emotional card: either build this massive resort or Elm Court will collapse into ruin.

To be blunt, this argument is total nonsense. There are many alternative uses; and there is certainly a far better process for building consensus and conceiving a sustainable future use for the property, one that does not create economic viability by destroying the existing neighborhood.

For example:

The Board of Selectmen could establish a committee of neighbors, concerned citizens and planning officials from both Stockbridge and Lenox to research alternatives. Just to get the ball rolling, here are a few ideas.

1. A smaller spa hotel with 32 rooms, 16 of which would be located in a wing similar in architectural style to the present “Billiard” wing, or put additional guest rooms in one of the houses on the southern end of the property (the Gardener’s Cottage, the Butler’s Cottage, the Stables, etc.).

2. Finish restoration of the mansion; involve Trustees of Reservations in running Elm Court as an historic hotel similar to but larger than the lovely restored mansion, The Inn at Castle Hill, on the Crane Estate run by the Trustees of Reservations. All rooms and facilities within the existing footprint. True restoration!

3. A development similar to Bishop Estate, which has 19 houses with most land held in common, as part of restored Beartix Ferrand landscape plan.

4. A development similar to Winden Hill, which has 28 units, in roughly 12 buildings on 60 acres.

5. Try again in this time of economic recovery to sell to an individual who would restore the building for personal use or for use as a luxury boutique Hotel.

6. Attract a small organization (think tank, academic research center, graduate program in 19th century American studies, etc.) to make Elm Court its headquarters, similar to the American Institute for Economic Research in Great Barrington.

7. Restore Elm Court to its original, smaller size and make it the Club House/Event Space for an association of architecturally harmonious houses on estate grounds.

These various approaches are only a start. Surely, a committee charged with exploring these and other concepts could develop a solid list of ideas worth exploring in more detail, with input from planning professionals. Rushing a project of this scale virtually guarantees massive unintended consequences. Let’s slow down, begin again and do it right!

Neighborhood Character

The applicant’s website makes the following statement regarding “neighborhood character”:

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 10.03.14 AM

Strangely, the above seems to imply that neighborhood character is something to be seen but not lived; that character is just a series of snap shots or postcards. That is not how our neighborhood understands character.

At the moment, Old Stockbridge Road remains a quiet, family-oriented, pedestrian-friendly low-key neighborhood with a balanced mix of year-round and seasonal residents. The onset of construction chaos and excavators, followed by headlights at night, round the clock commercial and service vehicles, hotel and restaurant staff shift changes, endless streams of transient guests speeding back and forth to various events, parking lots for 160 cars, and a general continuous year-round commercialized buzz at the heart of the historic landscape would have severe detrimental impacts to the existing character of the neighborhood, both in the present and in the future.

Both the applicant and town officials should listen more carefully to residents who have lived in the neighborhood, in some cases for many decades. We know the quality of life that we now have; and we know what we stand to lose. The commercial footprint for this proposed giant step commercial expansion would be extremely heavy, forever changing the human ecology and balance of the neighborhood. With regards to the road itself, both Stockbridge and Lenox would lose one of the Berkshire’s priceless historic assets. A pedestrian-friendly and compellingly beautiful former Gilded Age carriage path would be transformed into just another run-of-the-mill commercial thoroughfare. Pedestrians, children and bicyclists will be driven off our road, to find safer rural byways.

As for their statement that this massive resort represents the “smallest possible development”: that one defies all reason. Where are the marketing studies that back this statement up? Where is the business plan? Where is the analysis, or the rational argument? More than doubling the size of an enormous existing mansion is the “smallest possible development”?

As for the statement about historic preservation, we reply that history is more than views and mansions. The fastest way we can think of to destroy the gracious historic character of our scenic former carriage path and revolutionary-era post road would be to build a massive commercial resort.

sprawl

NOTHING SMALL ABOUT THIS

What About Traffic?

On the developer’s own website, we find the following highly misleading statement:

traffictravaasa

Their study centers on a purely quantitative analysis called “level of service”. For example, they ask if the increase in hundreds of cars and trucks per day will delay a resident on Bean Hill Road from turning left onto Old Stockbridge Road. Then they generate reams of data taken over a few sample hours during the week to cook up the inevitable answer: No Impact.

Though in our view such studies represent the most crass form of pseudo-science, let’s assume there are no problems on the quantitative side of the street. The problem is, we live on the qualitative side of the street. And there is simply no way to argue that the noise and safety impacts of hundreds of service trucks and cars will not detract from the quality of life on our quiet, residential and pedestrian-friendly street. There is also no way to argue that hundreds of trucks and cars will not change the qualitative experience of the road for visiting pedestrians and bicyclists. In fact, they will soon be erased from the scene, and will seek quiet by-ways elsewhere.

While there may be no impact regarding level of service, the impact on our quality of life will be dramatic. As an illustration, let’s imagine the pool at the proposed 15,000 square foot Travaasa spa. Now in terms of it’s “level of service”, it is likely to be able to accommodate hundreds of human bodies, and perhaps even a shark or two. But is this really the quality of a “memorable journey” that the brand “Travaasa” is meant to represent? We doubt it.

DON'T WORRY: NO IMPACT ON LEVEL OF SERVICE!

DON’T WORRY: NO IMPACT ON LEVEL OF SERVICE!

Finally, Amstar/Travaasa references having made a “commitment” to a sidewalk. But have they asked all residents who actually live on the street if we want a sidewalk? Many of us absolutely reject such a “gift”. A sidewalk will destroy any last vestige of Old Stockbridge Road as a historic, scenic by-way through the Gilded Age estate area. Build a sidewalk, and Old Stockbridge Road may as well be renamed Route 7B.

Have they approached the Town of Lenox with the idea of a sidewalk, since the roadway is in Lenox? Not that we know of. What we do know is that they need a sewer line extension that would carve up the road for months on end, for the benefit of one corporate customer, with unknown and unmeasured impacts on Lenox infrastructure. Maybe the sidewalk is just a spray of perfume to cover up the stink?

A Way Forward

Periodic major expansions in scale for the proposed resort have plagued the planning/permitting process from the start. In early meetings, the number of rooms was variably provided as 40 or 60, most of which were to be located in the existing mansion. Later, this grew to 80, then to 96 and finally to the current size of 112 rooms, most of which would be located in the proposed huge annex.

Over the same period of time, the restaurant has been variably described as “well off in the future”, or as “a small cafe”, or as “only for guests”, prior to its current iteration as a 60-seat full service restaurant open to the public.

The spa, early on, was described as “more like a workout facility”, yet soon ballooned to a 15,000 square foot pamper pavilion complete with swimming pool. To us, all this has seemed like a classic bait & switch strategy – the antithesis of a process where consensus is sought among all interested parties, through an open and transparent dialogue.

Recently, we sent a letter to the CEO of Amstar inviting his representatives to sit down with us in good faith and to seek common ground, and a way forward. Obviously, we are not interested in negotiating the location of parking lots; we hope they will commit to a process that will involve planning professionals from both Lenox and Stockbridge, as well as neighbors and other concerned parties, to approach the future of Elm Court with an open mind. If they are willing to make such a commitment, we are certain that there is a plan for this property that would satisfy the interests of all parties, including investors.

UPDATE AUGUST 18: Unfortunately, Front Yard/Travaasa/Amstar has indicated that they are not inclined to reduce the scale of their proposal, nor to participate in a different kind of process, built on consensus and transparency. It was worth a try, and at least on our side, the door remains open, should they wish to reconsider. 

 

Front Yard vrs. Spring Lawn

Spring Lawn

SPRING LAWN: WHERE VERY DIFFERENT CONDITIONS APPLY

The town of Lenox recently permitted a development of the former Spring Lawn mansion that will eventually be similar in size to the resort proposed by Front Yard LLC for Elm Court. From a town planning point of view,  the Spring Lawn proposal had a number of obvious strengths:

1. The entrance is on a major state road, Route 7A, with sidewalks, clear sight lines and a bicycle lane. The road is also engineered to state specifications, able to absorb high levels of commercial traffic.

2. Spring Lawn is located at the edge of town, meaning that key infrastructure already exists to support the development; it also means that guests are likely to walk at least some of the time, to access restaurants and cultural attractions in Lenox.

3. The development strategy is incremental, meaning that the owners will begin with renovations of the existing mansion and carriage house, and then assess impacts and economics prior to proceeding to the next stage. We see this incrementalism as both prudent and sound not just for the owner/developers, but also for the town and for neighbors.

4. The owner/developers worked hard, over the course of many years, to build consensus and address the concerns of key stakeholders. They also have history and roots in Berkshire County, and we take them at their word that they will be accountable and responsible regarding neighborhood impacts.

Now let’s look at the Front Lawn LLC proposal for Elm Court, where not a single one of these positive qualities applies:

1. The entrance is on Old Stockbridge Road, a narrow country lane that was formerly an estate carriage path, a road with no shoulders and many blind spots. The road carries an existing commercial traffic exclusion, meaning that it has not been engineered to absorb large numbers of service vehicles.

2. Elm Court is located over a mile from Lenox town, meaning that guests are likely to drive up and down the road, with multiple trips per day. Elm Court also has no existing sewage tie-in; the Lenox line would have to be extended south for at least a half mile. The impact of this construction will be huge, and potentially damaging to Gilded Age storm drains, architectural features and legacy trees.

3. The Front Lawn application represents one of the largest expansions of commercial use in the hospitality sector ever proposed in Berkshire County, from the existing 19 rooms to 112 rooms, all in one giant step. This means that there will be no checks nor balances along the way. It also means that once the Annex is built, there will no longer be any flexibility within the use for the property in the future; for example, it will never be able to be converted back to a private residence, nor to a luxury Country Inn like Blantyre or Wheatleigh.

4. Front Lawn LLC is an investment vehicle affiliated with a Denver-based real estate fund that specializes in flipping properties. They are accountable to their investors, not to the towns, and not to neighbors. Yes, we know all about “Travaasa”, but there is no guarantee that these branded resorts will not eventually be sold. Amstar generates most of their profits on exiting properties, in a strategy they call  “Cradle to Grave”.

Conclusion:

Maybe Spring Lawn will have problems with sustainability through time, but at least the project makes some sense from a planning point of view. The Front Yard project makes no sense whatsoever, will have massive negative impacts, and should be rejected in favor of a use that will be in harmony with the residential character of the existing neighborhood.

Cradle to Grave

From the applicant’s own website:

amstarctog

And here is a bird’s eye view of our neighborhood, whose interests are not at all aligned with Amstar’s “seamless transition”:

NOT A GRAVEYARD; REAL FAMILIES LIVE HERE.

OLD STOCKBRIDGE ROAD IS ON THE LEFT OF THIS PHOTO, CONCEALED BY THE FOLIAGE OF LEGACY TREES. OUR NEIGHBORHOOD IS NOT A GRAVEYARD FOR FLIPPED REAL ESTATE; REAL FAMILIES LIVE HERE!

Finally, here are a few properties that are now in the Amstar “grave” (or exited) category.

amstarexits

Amstar is a commercial real estate fund, and they have the right to pursue whatever strategy they wish. But we will not let them destroy our neighborhood while they wait for the most profitable time to exit Elm Court!