New uses for old buildings


Berkshire County has a long history of manufacturing. But due to the changes in the world economy that proud legacy of manufacturing can mostly be found in the vacant factories, mills and lots that criss-cross the area. It appears that trend may be changing, because developers have begun to find new uses for those structures that employed so many people.

The latest project is slated for the old Eagle Mill in Lee where a local developer hopes to have solidified potential reuses for the town's oldest factory along the Housatonic River by spring. A restaurant, hotel and affordable housing are possible, according to developer Jeffrey Cohen, who has a purchase-and-sale agreement to buy the former mill if his project is approved. Obviously, nothing is certain at this point, but to prepare the architectural drawings, Mr. Cohen has brought on Bruner/Cott Architects of Cambridge, the firm that also designed the plans that turned the former Sprague Electric facility in North Adams into the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Converting these former mills and factories into structures fit for other uses is a boost to the local economy. First of all, it puts these buildings back on the property tax rolls. Second, the new uses provide another way of bringing people into the Berkshires, which provides its own economic benefits. Mass MoCA is a prime example of the latter factor; an art museum that brings people to North Adams, and has spawned a cottage industry of artists that has begun to grow up around it.

Another example is the former Rice Silk Mill in Pittsfield, which was converted into 45 units of mostly affordable housing in 2012 after being vacant for seven years. The former Silk Mill hasn't had the economic impact that Mass MoCA has. But it's a creative new use of a building that had been vacant for so long that it was becoming an eyesore.

Like the Silk Mill, the Eagle Mill was originally owned by another group whose redevelopment plans never materialized. But Mr. Cohen seems to have the backing of people who can make this project work. His group has already met with Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Gregory P. Bialecki to gauge the state's interest in his plans. His group also includes Richard Vinette, the former executive director of the Lee Community Development Corp., who knows both Lee and the Berkshires very well. The group is also seeking public input. It plans to hold a private brainstorming session with 50 potential individuals who may have an interest in the project on Friday. Mr. Cohen is obviously willing to work with the community to build something everyone wants.

If financially, environmentally and logistically feasible, Mr. Cohen's group plans to restore five of the seven buildings on the 6.4 acre lot, some of which date back to 1806.

If his plans go forward, they will be a good use for old abandoned structure, a way to replace an eyesore with a productive building. We can't think of a better way to pay tribute to the Berkshire's proud industrial past.


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