LEE — With millions of dollars in tax credits at stake, developers are banking on a compromise to the Eagle Mill historical preservation plan they hope will save the $70 million revitalization project.
Mill Renaissance LLC has submitted to the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) a revised proposal that maintains the central portion of the 200-year-old complex and all of its historic features. Originally, the structure was to be razed and the space converted into an open-air mall. Only the late-19th century loading dock on the south elevation will be demolished from this portion of the building now.
The developer still wants to tear down the modern Butler and factory buildings on the eastern portion of the site. They stand in the way of creating 78 market-rate and workforce housing units, which are crucial for the project to go forward, according to principal developer, Jeffrey Cohen.
"The buildings are obsolete architecturally and economically — they have no adaptable use," Cohen said. "At the end of the day, it's a more profitable project with market-rate and affordable housing."
Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Historical Commission, backed by the National Park Service, ruled that all the buildings factor into the mill's history of papermaking and should be preserved. While the National Park Service has the final say on historic designations, the federal agency often sides with a state's decision, according to the project's chief historic preservation specialist.
"We believe that the revisions ... stand a better chance at being accepted by [the Massachusetts Historical Commission] because it does retain more historic fabric and will show the development of the mill throughout its history," Laura Harris Hughes wrote in an email to The Eagle.
The Massachusetts Historical Commission is expected to rule on the revised application within the next few weeks.
Project supporter state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli hopes the state sides with the developer.
"Anybody who has been to that [mill] knows the Butler buildings need to go," Pignatelli said. "Just because they are old doesn't necessarily make them historic."
The mill's historical significance is key to Mill Renaissance's request for up to $5.4 million in state historic tax credits, supported by the Lee Historical Commission. The developer also will be seeking $5.4 million in federal historic tax credits. If received, the $10.8 million would augment additional public/private investment that would fund the reuse of the site.
Once financing, permitting and environmental hurdles are cleared, the developers expect the project to take four to five years to complete.
The mixed-use revitalization calls for retail and office space, a community center, and workforce apartments on the site of the former Schweitzer- Mauduit International paper plant. A hotel and restaurant are also being considered.
Cohen indicated the revised historical preservation plan could be the last attempt to keep the project alive.
"We've taken an extraordinary amount of time to get the last, best proposal," he said.
The Eagle Mill, located along the Housatonic River at the north end of Main Street, closed along with three others in Lee and Lenox Dale in May 2008, putting more than 160 people out of work.
Cohen, who has a purchase-and-sale agreement for the complex, hopes revitalizing the mill will help replace the lost factory jobs and be a catalyst that sparks other economic growth in Lee — especially for the former Schweitzer mills upstream: Columbia, Greylock and Niagara.