Great Barrington -- A game-changing downtown development set to soon break ground is facing some delays over what the developer says is a communication breakdown between him and the chairman of the Historic District Commission.
Powerhouse Square developer Michael Charles of Benchmark Development was not on the commission's agenda, but he showed up at the commission's Thursday meeting anyway to ask Chairman Donald Howe why he had delayed scheduling a public hearing for a second condominium complex that is part of the company's proposed $15 million downtown development.
"It's been holding up the whole process, and it has real impacts," Charles later said, noting a sensitive construction timeline for a project that will include an expanded Berkshire Co-op Market. The commission ultimately set an April 6 date for the hearing, but not without some wrangling.
"It has impacts on the Co-op and everything else," Charles added.
The commission is the only town board that hasn't voted yet in the approval process for the 36-unit condominium and parking lot complex at Powerhouse Square, the retail, office and residential project set to break ground in the next several months.
The retail and first condominium phase will take about a year to complete, Charles said. But construction of the second condominium building, which is the only part of the complex located in the town's Historic District, won't begin until that is finished.
Nevertheless, delays to approving that part of the project are holding up the entire thing.
While the green light given to Benchmark by both the Select Board and Planning Board are critical, the commission must also weigh in.
Benchmark's site at the top of Bridge Street spans not only the Co-op's current location, but two abutting parcels, one of which sits on the Searles Castle property.
While the 1880s-built castle houses the John Dewey Academy preparatory school, the town wants to protect the historic atmosphere of the immediate area around it.
Benchmark has worked for months to get the commission's approval.
"We don't want to hold this up any longer," said commission member James Mercer at Thursday's meeting. "This has been going on for a long time."
The commission finally settled on an April 6 public hearing, and Charles later said he wants and expects a vote on that date.
It's been a long haul for everyone.
Benchmark first had to jump the hurdle of being able to build in the historic zone at all; that happened last fall amid high tension and flaring tempers at a dramatic commission hearing.
Now it's on to approval of the condominium unit and its details, for which Benchmark worked with the Design Advisory Committee, and incorporated some of that board's feedback into its plans.
The company also took advice from the commission about using landscaping to screen the side of the building that will face the historic castle property.
And that building will have an 1800s architectural flavor, while the new retail complex that will house the Co-op, other retail, office space and upstairs condominiums will sport an early 1900s industrial look to fit into the larger downtown aesthetic.
While Charles says he has submitted all the information necessary for the commission to hold it's hearing, Howe was vague at Thursday's meeting, accusing Charles of ignoring his emails requesting more details.
Charles said he never got those emails and, sounding desperate, offered up any information necessary to get a hearing on the calendar.
After a heated exchange between them, Charles wanted out of the tit for tat match.
"We can easily agree that there is miscommunication," Charles said.
Howe later said Town Planner Chris Rembold did determine that Benchmark's application is complete.
But Charles said he's worried about more delays to the approval process, and said the Co-op shares these concerns.
The popular natural foods store and cafe is in the process of raising $1.3 million in loans as it works on the new building design so it can expand to accommodate more customers and products.
Howe said there is no bad blood between him and Charles; that there are only moments when the two don't listen to each other.
Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871