Housing developers to evaluate flood concerns at former PhoTech site

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Worries about flooding have surfaced regarding a proposed housing development on the former PhoTech site along the Hoosic River.

During a public input session recently on the latest design of the project, neighbor Kevin Kennefick said flooding from Tropical Storm Irene was much worse than officials seem to understand.

If another such storm were to occur, "everything along that river would be compromised," said Kennefick, who lives next to the site. "The cube (former mill building) wasn't just wet; it was in the river. After that storm, I am opposed to capital improvements on that land. And climate change will likely increase the potential for flooding."

Charlie LaBatt, a senior engineer at Guntlow & Associates, which worked on the plans for the project, said the 100-year flood plain ends just before the existing mill structure, and that the three other buildings planned for the site are at least 20 to 30 feet from the flood plain. He added that there would be some in-fill of soil to raise the elevation a few inches higher for the structure nearest to the river.

"All the buildings are outside of the flood plain," he said. He assured the gathering that they would take a closer look at the flooding patterns for the property.

"We are going to be as careful as we can," said Elton Ogden, president of Berkshire Housing Development Corp. "We don't want to go though all this effort and wind up with a project that is prone to flooding."

Early designs for the Cole Avenue property involve the renovation and reuse of the cube-shaped former mill building, and the construction of three townhouse-style structures, for a total of 46 units for families and individuals of low to moderate income.

The developer, Berkshire Housing Development Corp., and architects and engineers that worked on the design were on hand to explain the plans for the roughly $14.5 million project.

The plans include three, two-story buildings with a townhouse style, the redevelopment of the former mill structure, and a playground.

"We're happy with the layout, and think it will be a real nice little community," said Julie Sniezek, a landscape architect with Guntlow & Associates.

The plans call for eight one-bedroom units and 16 two-bedroom units in the former mill structure. Ten three-bedroom units and 12 two-bedroom units will be distributed through the three new buildings.

In the cube, there will also be a community room with a kitchen.

The PhoTech cube is "built like a bomb shelter," said Carrie Dietz, a principal at Dietz & Co. Architects. "It really is pretty amazing."

There will have to be a site cleanup of contaminants before work begins, LaBatt said.

Still in play are the materials to be used for siding and roofing. The tilt of the roof on the three new structures is also under question, as planners would like to maximize the view of the river for the existing neighborhood overlooking the site.

"It's absolutely going to end up being a beautiful property," Dietz said. "It will have a dramatic effect and create more pride in the neighborhood."

The PhoTech site was settled on as a location for new affordable housing after two other attempts. The first proposal, for a location on Stratton Road, was declined after neighborhood opposition. The second proposal, recommended unanimously by the Affordable Housing Committee for housing on the PhoTech site and at the former site of the town garage on Water Street, was declined by the Board of Selectmen in favor of the Berkshire Housing proposal for the PhoTech site alone.

The need for affordable housing had become a focus for town officials after Tropical Storm Irene flooded the Spruces mobile home park in 2011, making it uninhabitable over the long term. There are only a few residents still living there, and they are expected to be relocated in the coming weeks.

The PhoTech site project is expected to be a multi-year effort, with construction likely to begin in 2017 or 2018 at the earliest. At least some of the funding for the project is being sought from the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Commercial Development.


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