Clarence Fanto: Hotel's size creates new Lenox drama


LENOX -- High drama in Lenox: Another face-off between supporters of economic development, primarily tourism, and critics focused on a project's height, size and appearance.

We've seen this drama before, and it's always a cliffhanger. Two town boards are delving deeply into hotel entrepreneur Joseph M. Toole's proposal for a 92-room, four-story, $10 million Courtyard by Marriott on a sliver of Brushwood Farms, a commercially zoned site that nearly everyone agrees is overdue for development.

But some Lenoxians, conscious of the town's Gilded Age history and intent on preserving its small-town New England ambiance, want developers to customize their projects to blend better with the community's character and charm.

In March 2006, the Zoning Board of Appeals turned down rival hotel owner Vijaysinh Mahida's proposal for a Marriott at the busy intersection of Routes 7 & 20 and Housatonic Street despite a major design revamp. The location, though commercially zoned, bordered a residential area and neighbors turned out in force, concerned about its size and impact.

Then, in April 2007, marketing firm owner Nathan Winstanley's plan for a mixed-use downtown development of townhouses, offices and gallery space was denied by the ZBA on grounds that it was inappropriate for the town. That project was viewed by many as an economic boon but nearby residents considered its size and scope detrimental to the neighborhood.

Toole's Marriott design features extensive landscaping and has been revised to include facade enhancements based on Planning Board and public feedback regarding its visibility from the highway. "We are preparing a set of cross-sections to illustrate how much of the building will even be visible after planting," Toole said on Friday, "and we are revising the rendering even further."

At last Wednesday's initial ZBA hearing, time ran out before all those among the 50 or so residents attending who wished to speak got their chance; they get another opportunity at the next zoning meeting on Jan. 22.

But nine members of the public did voice their views.

"People come here because it's a tourist town, and Marriott is a quality operation," said resident Buddy Adler. "We're starting to nit-pick on very small things that were fully addressed by the presentation. We've got a great opportunity here, it's a real positive move. I would hope that everybody would get together to find an answer to how this project can be viable, the sooner the better."

But Olga Weiss, representing the town's Historical Commission, had a different take: "How sad it would be to have a four-story, nondescript building abutting this historic spot. We think a perfect design, preferably a colonial, lower profile in keeping with the current two-story ZBA limit, would be more palatable."

Maria Smith, general manager of Toole's nearby Hampton Inn & Suites, extolled her employer as an ideal host for visitors -- "it matters who's the owner of the hotel."

Town resident Judy Moss voiced concerns about the four-story height: "What brings people to Lenox is the bucolic beauty of our area. I want to make sure we're doing the right thing for Lenox."

Lenox native and Route 7 farm owner Robert Coakley, a fifth-generation resident, praised Toole's record: "Joe has lived in this area all his life and knows what this area is looking for. His buildings are done in a classy, very nice manner. He maintains his properties in an excellent fashion. We very, very strongly support Joe's petition and hope that you'll vote for it."

Another native, Frederick Keator, cited the town's history promoting and creating more tourism -- "it's anathema to me that we don't want to have a place to put the tourists when they come to visit."

Local architect and resident Jim Harwood acknowledged that "it's probably a reasonable site for a hotel but I find the scale, massing, materials and approach to the site wholly inappropriate."

Calling on Toole's team to explore "lower, more respectful" options, Harwood suggested: "If these guys went back at it, they could probably get there. I have faith in them, they're excellent professionals and I hope that they do."

Dave Ward, owner of the Lenox Commons across the highway, welcomed the project; clearly, it would benefit his thriving mixed-use development.

Patty Spector, a four-decade resident, said "I have no disagreement about the hotel use on the property, the aesthetics is what I question, and also the fact that Courtyards all over the country are extremely different, depending on the community they exist in. I'm in favor of the project, I think the boards and Joe can work together to come up with something that is appropriate for the town."

As the meeting wound down, ZBA member Robert Fuster, Jr., said "this won't affect my vote, but I think this is a very ugly design. I agree with some of the comments that this is not appropriate for Lenox." Other board members reserved comment until the next meeting.

So far, 17 letters have been submitted to the board. Those in favor include restaurateur Laura Shack, innkeeper Eiran Gazit, chocolate-shop proprietor Joshua Needleman, wine and spirits merchant Jim Nejaime, fitness club owners Robert and Audrey Hart, antiques dealer Charles Flint and several residents.

Also supporting the Marriott are the town's fire chief, Dan Clifford, DPW superintendent Sean VanDeusen, and Lauri Klefos, head of the Berkshire Visitors Bureau.

Critics of the proposal include architects Jim Harwood and Robert Harrison, a group of six including the aforementioned Olga Weiss, and resident Mark Shapp. Multiple documents objecting to the plan have been filed by rival developer Vijaysinh Mahida's attorney, William E. Martin.

Given the divisions within the community, the final judgments by the Planning Board, in its advisory role, and the ZBA, delivering the verdict, will resolve the issue but not necessarily the ongoing dispute over what's best for the town.

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