Abutters aren't keen on hotel plan as part of Eagle Mill rejuvenation

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LEE — Several neighbors aren't keen on a 100-room hotel fronting a rejuvenated Eagle Mill and that's fine with the principal developer of the overall $60 million to $70 million project.

Jeffrey Cohen of Mill Renaissance LLC, wants to buy five residential and two commercial properties along West Center Street in order to build the lodging. One of the homeowners, Rosemarie Borsody, backs the redevelopment of the 200-year-old dormant paper mill, minus increased accommodations for visitors to the county.

"I think there's already too many hotels in the Berkshires," she recently told the Lee Planning Board. "Everyone and I would like to see the mill reused."

Cohen was unfazed by the cool reception to what isn't a top priority of the multi-purpose redevelopment at the north end of Main Street.

"The hotel is not a critical element of the project. It's OK if it doesn't happen," he said.

Nevertheless, Cohen has four of the seven parcels under contract with confidence he'll purchase the other three and convert the land into extra parking if the hotel is a no-go. He hasn't identified the four potential sellers.

Affordable housing, commercial and retail space are what's driving a project town officials want expedited under the auspices of Chapter 40R. That Massachusetts General Law encourages cities and towns to establish new overlay zoning districts to promote housing production and smart growth development of commercial uses.

The Lee Planning Board has voted 4-0, Peggy Biron abstaining, that a yet-to-be scheduled fall special town meeting adopt a Smart Growth Overlay District for the Eagle Mill site and the seven properties targeted for the hotel. The Chapter 40R regulation allows,without permits, housing and other improvements to the property. The state must approve the town's application for Chapter 40R status before town meeting voters consider the measures, likely by year's end.

The overlay district would also benefit the seven home and business owners if they end up keeping their properties, according to Lee Select Board Chairman David Consolati.

"If you wanted to put a deck on the back of your house, you would have to pay a $750 permit fee. The 40R would allow you to do it by right," he noted.

Chapter 40R also could help Lee secure a $6 million MassWorks infrastructure grant toward a estimated $7 million to $8 million installation of a larger water main through the center of town to benefit a redeveloped Eagle Mill and bolster water pressure for firefighting purposes.

"It's impossible to build this project without adequate water pressure," Cohen said.

Five years of planning and several revisions later, Cohen three weeks ago presented of what he called the final design for revitalizing a paper mill with a 200-year history.

Cohen's latest design still includes 122 apartments, up from the original 78 units. Cohen says the breakdown remains the same: 80 percent of the units deemed affordable and 20 percent market rate. A 1939 brick addition and a post-World War II metal building on the eastern half of the site would be demolished, replaced by a 3- or 4-story, 68-unit apartment building. The rest of the rentals would be housed in existing historic structures.

The proposed hotel was relocated from the center of the site to along West Center and enlarged from 58 to 100 rooms.

The project's centerpiece is a public market akin to Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston with independent food and craft vendors anchored by multiple eateries, according to Cohen.

Shut down since May 2008, Eagle Mill is located at the north end of Main Street behind Joe's Diner. The proposal maintains most of the 200-year-old complex and its historic features up to the mid-1900s.

The National Park Service has given preliminary approval to demolishing a loading dock along with the 1939 addition and so-called "Butler Building" on the east end. The National Park Service needs more information from the developer regarding the demolition before signing off on the project, according to Cohen.

Park Service approval is key for Mill Renaissance LLC to pursue federal and state historic tax credits and other financing for the project.

The Eagle Mill being placed on the National Register of Historic Places is a designation key to obtaining the tax credits totaling up to $10.8 million.

If received, the credits 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 several years to complete.

The Eagle Mill closed along with three others in Lee and Lenox Dale in May 2008, all last operated by Schweitzer-Mauduit International, putting more than 160 people out of work.

Cohen has said he hopes revitalizing the complex 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.

Reach staff writer Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.


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