Category Archives: Elm Court

The Big Flush

A brief post to take note that all three members of the Stockbridge Board of Selectmen who voted to allow an unprecedented intensification of commercial use within a quiet, historic residential neighborhood have been flushed from their seats, or chose to flush themselves.

I     Deborah “Deb” McMenamy, who never seemed entirely clear about who actually had bought Elm Court, nor what exactly they were proposing to do with the property, and yet seemed to have made her mind up even before the hearing began:

II     Charles “Chuck” Gillette, local realtor and agent for the sale of the house belonging to the attorney for Front Yard LLC, and a man so deaf to the public interest that he had written a prepared statement justifying his support for the special permit well before all evidence and input had been submitted via the public hearing:

III     Steve “Smirker” Shatz, Chair for this sad trio, with his complete lack of ethical compass in actively coaching and catering for the developer, while presiding over a process that one young Berkshire citizen called the most biased and corrupt forum she had ever witnessed:

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In the event Front Yard needs to revise their plan to drop an enormous big-box franchise-style motel onto a property that already “features” a sprawling, rotting Gilded Age mansion, let us hope that the new Board of Selectmen will be more open-minded and receptive to the legitimate concerns of the neighborhood.

As We Predicted

From the recent edition of “Travel Weekly”:

Miraval Group has acquired the Travaasa Austin Resort from Amstar Group and will spend the next two years expanding and redeveloping the 220-acre property into what will become the Miraval Austin.

Miraval will increase the hotel’s room count to 120 from 70, expand the property’s main restaurant and more the double the spa space. Miraval plans to finish the redevelopment in January 2019.

Miraval, which operates its eponymous resort in Tucson, Ariz., earlier this year took over spa operations at Southern California’s Monarch Beach Resort as part of its expansion plans for its Life in Balance Spa brand. Miraval also said this year that it will redevelop the Cranwell Resort in western Massachusetts.

As opponents of the Dumb Growth project to “save” the rotting Gilded Age pile known as Elm Court by building a massive new big box franchise-style hotel have stated from the start: Amstar, the Otto Happel family office real estate portfolio, is not in the hospitality business.

Amstar buys and flips commercial properties. Most of their total return is generated in the exit strategy, also known as “the grave”. We suspect that main investor Otto Happel has decided to exit the “Travaasa wellness” delusion entirely, and that a sale of the Hawaii property will follow soon. Then what happens with Elm Court?

Bamboozled by unrealistic expectations of tax revenues, boards in the towns of Stockbridge and Lenox failed to grasp what was behind the bizarre idea of using a derelict mansion as a fig leaf for a Courtyard By Mariott or Hilton Gardens, or whatever is at the end of the exit ramp when Amstar dumps the property.

Let us hope that opponents of the development scheme prevail in their appeal of the hasty, ill-considered decision to approve a project that sacrifices the legitimate interests of a residential neighborhood to a handful of real estate speculators. Let us also hope that Amstar investor Otto Happel has a closer look at what his managers have been up to and concludes that building a project in a neighborhood overwhelmingly opposed to the idea is just plain bad business.

The purchaser of the Travaasa “flagship” in Austin, Miraval, recently purchased the nearby Cranwell resort, slated for significant expansion during 2017. With massive development also proposed for the former Desisto property across the town boundary in Stockbridge, we ask once again: how is any of this sustainable? Dumb Growth compounds to absurdity and then inevitably collapses.

 

 

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 unsavory spectacle of a red-faced Amstar CEO Gabe Finke lecturing and chastising  the “little people” gathered inside the Stockbridge Town Hall.

finke

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 of Finke’s strange investment ideas, such as an assortment of shopping malls in Turkey and residential apartments in the, um, peaceful Ukrainian capital of Kiev.

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, once again displaying his penchant (as with with the pseudo-Sanskrit “Travaasa”) for ersatz words. 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 the naive members of a money-hungry Stockbridge Select Board, is long gone from the Elm Court scene. So much for long-term commitments!

ascentsis

WHICH SHELL HIDES THE PEA?

Given the massive infrastructure work required to make the Elm Court viable, the project is essentially a public/private partnership. Here are the two unbreakable rules of such partnerships, from the point of view of the public entity (in this case the town of Lenox):

1) Know with whom you are doing business.

2) Focus on long term track record and experience within the industry, such that the town is not left holding the bag when things go wrong. 

Alas, local boards in both Stockbridge and Lenox never even tried to answer these questions; on the night of the final decision made by the Lenox ZBA,  board members had no clue  about what sort of business Amstar really was, nor even who actually owned Elm Court: Green Tea, Front Yard, Travaasa, Adam Hawthorn, Gabe Finke or Amstar Advisors. (The correct answer is Otto Happel, through what remains of the Amstar Group, and with Front Yard LLC serving as the shell corp.)

Lenox-ZBA-470x353

DOES ANYONE HERE KNOW WHO OWNS ELM COURT?

As for the second question, 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. As we have said a hundred times, falling on deaf ears, 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 consquences. If the monstrous thing is ever built. Maybe the hapless Mr. Happel, victim of bad investment advice, will finally have a closer look at where his money is being spent, grasp the inanity of the idea, and pull the plug.

No Other Recourse

Many people have asked us over the past several months why residents in the Old Stockbridge Road neighborhood did not appeal the sham process conducted by the Stockbridge Board of Selectmen. The answer is simple: we had every confidence that the process in Lenox would be held to a far higher standard, and that the letter and spirit of the Lenox Zoning Bylaw would be vigorously upheld.

Alas, such confidence was misplaced. Over the course of several confused and chaotic meetings, conducted with little direction or focus on verifiable facts, the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) appeared not to comprehend what it was supposed to be doing, namely, evaluating the Amstar/Front Yard LLC proposal with strict reference to the Lenox Zoning Bylaw. In fact, references to the Bylaw were few and far between, crowded out by grandstanding and cheerleading in favor of Front Yard’s ludicrous scheme to “save” the derelict mansion by building a second massive pile right next door.

Supporters of the project were permitted long, rambling and irrelevant riffs on the vast riches that would instantly flow into every Lenox pocket from the Elm Court gold mine, while opponents were chastised and dismissed. Meanwhile, throughout this sad spectacle, serious safety questions regarding the profoundly inadequate traffic study submitted by the applicant, as well as a host of other issues, remained unanswered and unexamined. The representatives from Amstar/Front Yard would simply object that even minor restraints on activity would dig into their profit margins (extracted at the expense of many lifelong residents) and the ZBA would instantly cave in.

Numerous invitations from the neighborhood to sit down with the applicant and the town to try to find some reasonable common ground were ignored. In addition, several attempts from residents to point out how the application did not meet the high standard appropriate for a project of this size were suppressed.

From the beginning, the neighborhood has sought reasonable compromise and moderation, with countless suggestions for intelligent and thoughtful checks and balances. The neighborhood would openly welcome any proposal that respected our own history and interests. Dropping a huge resort with spa and restaurant into the very heart of a long-standing historic residential neighborhood in One Big Dump is EXTREME — unprecedented in the Berkshires.  Smart Growth criteria, to which Lenox has long paid lip service, were thrown under the Amstar/Front Yard bulldozer. The result? A project that would bring the most Dumb Growth imaginable, bringing profit to a handful of speculative investors while negatively impacting one of the town’s most distinctive and established residential neighborhoods.

With no other recourse, in defense of their rights to the safe enjoyment of their own properties, a number of residents in the neighborhood decided to file an appeal with state Land Court.

The promoters for a project of this massive scale in a neighborhood where the vast majority of residents are opposed should at least be obliged to obey the law. Have they? With the filing of a broad-reaching appeal that challenges numerous aspects of the ZBA’s decision and conditions, that is now for the Land Court to decide. We look forward to the forthcoming process. At the very least, we should be able to answer a number of questions that have haunted this process from the very start, questions that town officials in both Stockbridge and Lenox appeared determined never to ask.

The New Normal

We note with interest the below screen shot taken from realtor.com: thenewnormal? Fact 1: The realtor for the property, a Mr. Charles Gillett, is a Selectmen in the Town of Stockbridge. He voted in favor of Elm Court in a hearing for a special permit viewed by many of those present as profoundly flawed and prejudicial. Mr. Gillett was so enthusiastic in his endorsement of the big-box spa hotel that he had written his “finding” prior to the conclusion of the public hearing.

Fact 2: The property listed above, located at 5A Butler Road, is owned by family of the lead counsel for Front Yard LLC during the Stockbridge hearing.

To be clear: we are not stating that this provides any evidence of impropriety. For surely such things as cronyism and pay-per-permit could never happen in the land of Norman Rockwell, where high ethical standards are paramount — right?

A member of a Special Permit Granting Authority (in Stockbridge, the Board of Selectmen) stands to benefit from the sale of property belonging to a family member of the attorney for a real estate corporation that has proposed a massive expansion of commercial use in the heart of a residential neighborhood. So what?

Nothing to see here. An innocent coincidence. Definitely. That must be it. And in the galleries of the Normal Rockwell Museum, if you  listen carefully, you can hear the termites chewing the picture frames.

Occupy Elm Court?

Lenox-ZBA-470x353

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.