Category Archives: stockbridge board of selectmen

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.

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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 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!

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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.)

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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.

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?

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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.

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.

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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.

The Telling Detail

Sometimes, the deeper meaning of a long story finds expression in a single document. So it is with recent minutes of the Stockbridge Board of Selectmen, that offer readers a sad chronicle of naive boosterism and derogation of due process. Here is a snippet from those minutes early in the process of “reviewing” (read: shamelessly promoting) the Amstar proposal for Elm Court:

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Chuck is Selectman Charles Gillette; Chris is Chris Manning, one of the former presidents of the revolving door real estate operation that carries the pseudo-Sanskrit brand name “Travaasa”. The snippet speaks for itself, but here’s the neighborhood response to Mr. Gillette, Mr. Manning and to Travaasa president-du-jour Adam Hawthorn: that “little elderly lady” has a name, and a life, and a residency on Old Stockbridge Road that spans five decades. She deserves to be treated with respect, not dismissed as powerless, and thus considered irrelevant. Rather than caution Mr. Manning for his arrogant statement, Mr. Gillette merely wonders if the fact that “she is in Lenox” may become a problem. So much for the ideals of public service!

The Stockbridge minutes are full of telling vignettes such as this one; we recommend them to all Stockbridge voters. Is this who you are, the sort of town you wish to be? Do such “leaders” truly represent the best and brightest of Stockbridge and the Berkshires?