Tag Archives: Neighborhood character

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.

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.

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.

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

A Neighborhood In Danger

COMMERCIAL TRAFFIC PROHIBITED: MEGA-RESORT PERMITTED?COMMERCIAL TRAFFIC PROHIBITED: MEGA-RESORT PERMITTED?

“Every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require.” – Theodore Roosevelt

A Denver-based real estate corporation named Amstar (aka Green Tea LLC, Travaasa Resorts or Front Yard LLC) is proposing to transform the Elm Court Estate into a major commercial resort with 112 rooms, a sixty-seat public restaurant and a 15,500 square foot spa that will also be open to the public. Together with the enormous four-story hotel Annex, this additional building complex more than doubles the square footage of an already very large existing mansion (one of many tramplings upon the Stockbridge zoning by-law), bringing the total square footage to over 115,000 square feet!

The Old Stockbridge Road Neighborhood Association strongly opposes this huge project in our quiet residential neighborhood, and urges the Lenox Board of Selectmen to reject Amstar’s application for a special permit, since Stockbridge made a mockery of their own public hearing. Please note that everyone who lives in the neighborhood – full-time or part-time, year-round or seasonally, as an owner or as a tenant, in Stockbridge or Lenox – has the right to oppose this Special Permit.

EC

THE AMSTAR RESORT WOULD DOUBLE THE SIZE OF THIS MASSIVE EDIFACE WHILE DESTROYING THE CHARACTER OF THE EXISTING NEIGHBORHOOD

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Why do you oppose this proposal?

We believe that a project of this scale, essentially the same size as the Cranwell Resort on Route 7, will make a very substantial and negative impact on our quiet residential neighborhood. The Amstar proposal represents one of the largest expansions of commercial use ever proposed in Berkshire County — on a narrow, hilly road, in a family-oriented established neighborhood. Bad for the Berkshires, bad for the two towns, and of course bad for the neighborhood. We also oppose the unwillingness of the applicant to share information critical to evaluating the public interest, and their repeated “bait & switch” changes in the definition of what they intend to do.

But hasn’t Amstar presented a traffic study that shows very little impact?

First, this sort of purely quantitative study, paid for by the applicant, is not appropriate for assessing changes in quality of life and in the residential character of our neighborhood.  Second, Old Stockbridge Road is not Route 7 or 7a. We are a narrow, hilly road with many houses quite close to the street. That means that even relatively small numbers of cars and trucks will have a very significant impact on our right to enjoy our own property in peace and quiet, in our residential zone.

exclusion

Why should we object since the Annex as proposed won’t be visible from Old Stockbridge Road?

That remains to be seen.  But we will definitely see hundreds and hundreds of guest and employee cars as well as delivery trucks and day visitors going in and out of Elm Court day and night.  During the day we’ll see and hear guests using the property.  At night we’ll see lights from 112 guest-rooms and music and noise from parties, banquets and weddings, together with endless headlights from cars arriving and departing Elm Court. Permitting a public restaurant and spa also sets a dangerous precedent, allowing more and more commercial enterprises on our scenic road, and others like it.

Yes, but if this does not go forward, won’t Elm Court become a ruin?

No. Their argument that we must accept this out-of-scale proposal or Elm Court will revert to how it was in 1999 is a scare tactic, and is absolutely false. There are many viable options for the sustainable use of the property that have not been explored, options that will be in keeping with the rest of our neighborhood.  In fact, we do support the preservation of the original mansion but not with a huge commercial Annex, which nearly doubles its size.  To argue that the only way to “save Elm Court” is to destroy the neighborhood is utter nonsense. The neighborhood is wide open to reasonable proposals; this huge mega-resort is not reasonable. We believe it is also illegal.

What do you mean by that?

According to the Bylaws, a special permit can only be approved if certain conditions are met, both within the general zoning bylaws, and within the special bylaw governing the former Berkshire “cottages”.  After consultation with leading land use experts and attorneys, we do not believe these conditions have been met. The bylaws are there to protect the community from inappropriate development schemes, such as the one proposed by Amstar. We will insist that the law be upheld.

What is your biggest worry?

We are particularly concerned with the detrimental impact on the established and future character of Old Stockbridge Road as a neighborhood for a diverse mix of year-round and seasonal residents. At the proposed scale, Elm Court threatens to destroy our quiet, family-friendly residential street. Will we become a “resort neighborhood”, as year-round families move elsewhere? We understand that they intend to transform Elm Court into a “wedding mill”; will these events be alcohol free? We doubt it. Families with young children will not move to a neighborhood with such a huge year-round party house right next door.

Do we really want even want more traffic on Old Stockbridge Road, including large numbers of trucks and delivery vehicles? Does Lenox truly think it is appropriate to have a business the size of Cranwell dropped by outside investors into the middle of an existing, long-established quiet residential neighborhood? Do we want a public restaurant, serving wine and liquor, located on a winding rural road, with its low lighting, and many hills? Do we want even more chaos at the difficult intersection by the monument? Do those who love Berkshire history think that it is appropriate that the existing Elm Court mansion will be used as a fig leaf for the 96-room “annex” that to us looks very similar to a franchise-style big-box hotel?

Aren’t you just being NIMBYs?

No. We would welcome a proposal that makes sense: for the neighborhood, for the towns of Lenox and Stockbridge, and for the Berkshires. Yet this proposal makes no planning sense whatsoever. There is no Master Plan, no Gateway Study, and no Green Belt evaluation that indicates that yes, this is a reasonable location for a major commercial development. How can we make a decision of this consequence without the necessary tools? Do we really want intensive commercial use at the heart of one of our most historic and scenic neighborhoods? What kind of precedent will this set for major commercial developments elsewhere in the Berkshires?

But isn’t this good for the economy?

No. Our economy depends on protecting the special historic and aesthetic qualities of Lenox and the Berkshires. If we turn beautiful, quiet and historic neighborhoods like Old Stockbridge Road into commercial thoroughfares, we are undermining the very foundation of our future. Further, there is substantial evidence that suggests we already have too much hotel capacity in the county. Will this mid-market franchise-style hotel be the final blow to our struggling B & Bs? Finally, most of the jobs created by this resort will be low-paying service jobs, not the sort of creative economy growth we are trying to attract, for long-term vitality and growth. In any event, it is impossible to know what economic impact the resort would have, since the applicant refuses to divulge any details about its business plan. We believe that this refusal raises serious questions about their commitment to the Berkshires, and to the local economy. They intend to make their money on the EXIT from this property, not in its sustainable operation.

Where do things stand right now?

The Board of Selectmen, in their role as the Special Permitting Granting Authority, gave permission to Front Yard LLC to proceed with their plans. We believe the process was extremely flawed, and was essentially a sham, or a sort of kangaroo hearing, but the standard of proof for corruption essentially requires cancelled checks delivered from developers to officials, and such evidence we do not have. We presume the applicant will now move on to Lenox, where they also will require a separate special permit from the Lenox ZBA as well as a sewerage permit from the Lenox Board of Selectmen. We can only hope and trust that Lenox will subject the deeply flawed proposal to a higher standard of review, and think long term, beyond the quick fix of fees.

Note: Unfortunately, the Lenox ZBA declined to do their job, and caved in to speculative cheerleading from various commercial interests. 

osrna1 OK, so what can I do to help?

Lenox residents: Let the Lenox Board of Selectmen know that traffic is already at a tipping point on Old Stockbridge Road, and that the road is already becoming unsafe for pedestrians, children and bicyclists. Let them know how much we all value our quiet neighborhood, and that an enormous commercial entity would have very negative impacts. They want to hear from you — in writing, or in the open comment session that begins each meeting.

Sign our petition, which is available at the Edmonds residence, at 316 Old Stockbridge Road, and now numbers close to one hundred signatures.

Talk to your neighbors, and carefully consider what this supersized resort will mean to all of us who have lived here for many years and even decades, and who love the special qualities of Old Stockbridge Road as a non-commercial residential scenic and historic road. Join our email list, and come to our meetings.

Call 637-2676 or email info(at)osrna.org. osrna3 “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”        – Margaret Mead