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Elm Court Investors

Both the Stockbridge and Lenox Zoning Boards recently approved extensions to the special permit granted to Front Yard LLC for the creation of a “Travaasa”-branded resort on the property. At those meetings, as reported by the Berkshire Eagle, an attorney representing the applicant alluded to delays caused by litigation filed by owners of neighboring properties; increased material prices; and the “complexity” of the project.

We have a few other ideas why investors may be leery of throwing money into the potentially bottomless money pit at Elm Court:

I      The project makes no economic sense. There is already existing over-capacity in the Berkshire hospitality industry. The expansion at Cranwell/Miraval will certainly put increased pressure on the industry, above all in the market segment targeted by Amstar/Travaasa. Demographic trends also pressure the market, with younger generations staying away from “destination resorts”, expressing preferences for Airbnb, glamping or smaller inns touch as Tourists in North Adams. In turn, older guests prefer the familiar traditional choices such as Blantyre, Wheatleigh and the Red Lion, all of which are running well below capacity. Then there are Canyon Ranch and Kripalu in the “Wellness” category to which Travaasa also aspires: formidable, established competition, with recently expanded capacity presently not being filled. Where is the market for Elm Court “Travaasa”? We don’t know, because Front Yard never made their case for economic viability during any of their appearances before local boards.

II.    The risks and costs associated with the promised “extensive renovation” of the existing Elm Court mansion are unknown. Are there serious lead paint and asbestos issues? Are the foundations for the wings structurally sound? Do other aspects of the rotting mansion retain structural integrity, or will it become necessary to essentially rebuild a sprawling Gilded Age trophy house? If that is the case, then why build a four-story big box right next to the “renovated” sprawling mansion, with all the associated costs of new construction?

III.    In order to obtain the special permits, the Amstar CEO at the time, Mr. Gabe Finke, promised to pay for both extensive municipal infrastructure (a complicated and expensive sewage connection as well as water upgrades), together with a sidewalk that would run from Elm Court to the town of Lenox, a sidewalk that many — if not most — of the impacted properties oppose. What are the risks and costs associated with this work? Here again, no specificity was provided regarding the budget nor engineering for these promised improvements in any of Front Yard’s appearances before local planning boards. Investors would need to carefully evaluate how these substantial risks and hidden costs might negatively impact their return.

IV.    Front yard/ Amstar has no development experience for a property of this size — or any size! Zero. They are a “cradle to grave” fund that buys properties, tries through a variety of strategies to add value to those properties, and then sell to the highest bidder. They make their money on the exit. Do investors trust Front Yard LLC and Travaasa — a brand now limited to a single operating property, in Hawaii — to manage a major development  project such as this? Obviously, they would need a development partner; but would any experienced developer be willing to assume the many known unknowns and unknown unknowns associated with this project? Amstar/Front Yard are promising a return of 7 or 8 percent based on 60 to 70 percent occupancy. Everyone has a dream, but are these numbers even remotely grounded in reality?

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Obviously, there are future uses for the property that would make economic sense, and that the neighborhood would support. For example, the rotting wings could be removed, leaving the original (and far more architecturally distinguished) core of the residence as a small, boutique luxury inn. Such an Inn would be the heart of a limited residential development along the lines of nearby Bishop Estate, with most of the land held in common, and managed by an HOA. Canyon Ranch has struggled to sell its two million dollar condos, but the market for second homes, above all in prime locations such as Old Stockbridge Road, remains strong. As many of us who live here have submitted from the start of this long process, a reasonable, low impact use would be welcomed and supported. The existing plan, a plan that adds a second huge structure directly next door to what was once the largest private residence in North America in a market already saturated with resorts, hotels and other options, is just plain silly. No wonder the Front Yard attorney reports “difficulties” in rounding up investors!

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.

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. 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!

ascentsis

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.

Who Are We?

These past months, those who have questioned the benefits of an over-sized Elm Court have been called various names by the ill-informed boosters for a massive new resort at the heart of our residential neighborhood. So who are these people who oppose expanding Elm Court into a 112-room resort, spa and restaurant?  And why do they oppose it?

We have talked to over 155 petitioners asking for a scaled-back, smaller Elm Court.  Among us you’ll find your friends, neighbors and relatives; teachers, doctors, small engine repairers, students, homemakers, inn-keepers, lawyers, shop-keepers, architects, carpenters, artists, cooks, ministers and elected leaders.

We’re a good cross-section of Stockbridge and Lenox.  Some of us are retired, some still working, some unemployed. We’re young and old and in-between. We own modest, moderate and large homes; rent apartments; and live in subsidized housing.

One abutter, a retired schoolteacher, built her house fifty years ago and fears the constant in and out traffic hundreds of guests, employees and vendors would bring.

Another abutting family worries that they will no longer be able to walk their dog or that their children can no longer ride their bikes on their formerly quiet street.

Among us are many Berkshire youths who fear that the local economy is becoming way too lopsided, in favor of tourism. They have no interest in working at a large franchise-style resort like the one proposed for Elm Court. They ask why town officials aren’t looking for ways to support a more diverse, locally-owned and sustainable economy, rather than giving birth to enormous white elephants.

Among us are three descendants of 18th and 19th century town’s people who do not live near Elm Court yet are worried about the precedent of putting a commercial hotel/restaurant in a residential zone.

Among us are three prominent Berkshire county environmental leaders who want to preserve Elm Court and its landscape as is – not as out-of-town developers want it to become.  We also include two Berkshire-based CEO’s responsible for hundreds of jobs but know that success is not just about income but achieving a higher quality of life.  They worry that an immense resort will be a detriment to the character of their road.

Among us are the many homeowners who make up the Bishop Estate, who are worried about increased traffic, noise, light and the tumult from delivery trucks servicing regular guests and special events.  Concerned signatories also live at Winden Hill, at White Pines, on Stone Hill Road, at Heaton Court.

Signatories now live (or have lived) on nine of the 11 designated Scenic Byways:  Rattlesnake Mountain, Bean Hill, Averic, Mahkeenac, Butler, Hawthorne, Prospect Hill, Yale Hill and, of course, Old Stockbridge Road.  On none of these roads will you find a four-story hotel, nor a sixty seat restaurant, nor a 15,500 square foot “spa”.

Among us are three Stockbridge Planning Board members, three former Selectmen, two members of the Community Preservation Committee, two members of the Stockbridge Cultural Council, one member of the Conservation Commission, three members of the Stockbridge Housing Authority, and one member of the Stockbridge Land Trust Board.

We’re a diverse, lively and independent-minded group who certainly don’t agree on everything, but we all urge the Stockbridge Board of Selectmen to vote on Monday September 8th to deny Front Yard, LLC a Special Permit. That denial will allow discussion of the many alternative solutions (see osrna.org) to this out-of-scale 121,683 square foot hotel/spa/restaurant.

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?

Accidents Waiting to Happen

Old Stockbridge Road is a former carriage way and postal road that was never conceived nor engineered as a thruway for heavy commercial traffic. The road already poses significant safety risks for walkers, joggers, bicycles and babysitters with strollers, at present levels of traffic.

What happens if we add hundreds more vehicles per day, including a huge increase in commercial and service vehicles? And who will be responsible for the inevitable accidents and injuries?

SIGN SAYS SLOW CHILDREN; CARS NEVER REDUCE SPEED

SIGN SAYS SLOW CHILDREN; CARS NEVER REDUCE SPEED

DIPSY DOODLE: WITH A DRIVEWAY IN THE DIP

DIPSY DOODLE: WITH A DRIVEWAY IN THE DIP

HMM, WHAT'S OVER THE HILL? OOPS , A PRIVATE ROAD!

HMM, WHAT’S OVER THE HILL? OOPS , A PRIVATE ROAD!

TRICKY "S" CURVE: BUT WHEN LATE FOR WORK, YOU DO WHAT YOU GOTTA DO

TRICKY “S” CURVE: BUT WHEN LATE FOR WORK, YOU DO WHAT YOU GOTTA DO