Living gets creative in mill spaces
NORTH ADAMS -- In their formative years, industrial mills in Berkshire County were home to hundreds of workers who toiled the years away, suffering injury, stress, labor woes and protests, while drawing sustenance for their families from these brick behemoths that dotted the local landscape.
Today, many of those buildings are vacant or near-vacant, while their owners seek new ways to generate revenue from their vast spaces. One way to keep these buildings profitable and on the tax rolls has been to convert them into housing units.
So now, where hundreds once toiled, scores live in spacious, high-ceiling, tall windowed post-industrial apartments or condominiums.
Local artist Eric Rudd saw the vacant Eclipse Mill in North Adams as an opportunity to help steer a community that was on course to build a post-industrial creative economy. More interested in attracting artists to live and work in the city after Mass MoCA opened, Rudd created a financial formula that stressed the project's success over its profitability.
The result is an artistic community of potters, writers, dancers, photographers, and musicians -- several of them with studios or galleries -- who now populate the Eclipse Mill, originally built for use as a cotton mill in 1854.
Rudd began working on the project around 1999. He said people originally wondered, "Who would want to live in a factory?"
"But mills are really attractive to artists because of the high ceilings, open, flexible spaces and large windows with lots of sunlight," he said.
When the project was completed in 2005, the former mill contained 40 artists lofts ranging from 2,000 to 2,400 square feet. Since then the value of the lofts, which were sold to the buyers condominium-style, have "more than doubled," Rudd said.
Gail and Phil Sellers bought two of them. Ironically, Gail Sellers' parents worked in the mills as kids in Pittsfield and Adams.
In one unit, the Sellers' have their ceramics studio, the retail pottery store River Hill Pottery, and their office space. Attached to the studio/workspace is their home, complete with private gallery, living room, dining area, kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom, with original hardwood floors throughout.
They moved their decades-old pottery production and sales operation to North Adams from Madison, Ohio. Their sons had recently graduated college and left the nest, and the ceramics business was in flux.
While visiting Gail Sellers' parents in her hometown of Adams, the couple stopped and toured the still-undeveloped Eclipse Mill in 2003. From that seed grew a totally new direction for their business and their life plan.
"A lot of people don't like to live in their studio," said Phil Sellers. "But this allowed us to be open to the public, without having to hire help, and still be able to work in the studio all day and be close to home."
Another former North Adams mill is now home to 43 families, but underwent a different kind of conversion.
The Clark Biscuit Company's former production facility was derelict and had begun to seriously deteriorate when a team of developers from Arch Street Development bought the property in 2005. They embarked on a five-year, $12 million project to convert the structure into affordable housing units.
Managed by Berkshire Hous ing Development, the building's occupancy rate is consistently around 90 percent, with a waiting list of potential re nters.
The developer obtained both historic tax credits and affordable housing tax credits, which accounted for about 35 percent of the total cost of the conversion, according to Arch Street partners Colin P. O'Keeffe and Richard C. Relich.
"That was a big component of the equity picture," Relich said. "We've been very happy with that project and how it turned out."
In Pittsfield, South Church Street Associates of North Adams converted part of the old Sheaffer Eaton Plant into 23 condominiums that are all occupied. That complex also includes a business park, which was developed earlier, and is separate from the condominiums. The condominium project began in 2006 and is known as the Clock Tower Condominiums.
"Not everyone likes living downtown in a mill," said David Carver, the managing partner of Scarafoni Associates of North Adams, which operates South Church Street Associates.
"But for some folks it holds a lot of appeal -- many of them are empty-nesters who are interested in what's happening downtown."
The most recent Berkshire mill to be converted into living units is the former A.H. Rice Silk Mill in Pittsfield's Morningside neighborhood.
In September 2012, Rees-Larkin Development of Boston completed a $15 million project that converted the former mill into 45 units of affordable housing. The Rice Silk Mill Apartments are managed by Berkshire Housing Services, a division of Berkshire Housing Development.
The complex has more than 75 total residents, and a "substantial" waiting list, according to Berkshire Housing's director of management, Marc Bellora. Eligible occupants have an income that is between 35 and 60 percent of the Berkshire's total median income.
"The decision to rehab the Rice Silk Mill property for this housing has proved to be a success and we look forward to continuing to serve the community in this capacity," Bellora said.
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