Great Barrington officials see parking-for-permit deal as bullying

The owner of the Berkshire Block building in Great Barrington wants to buy and raze the Individual Laundromat and apartments on School Street to create more parking for the multiuse downtown building. It has suggested that continued use of existing parking there hinges on town approval of the project.

GREAT BARRINGTON — The owner of a commercial building and the downtown parking lot behind it is threatening to close the lot to the public if officials deny a special permit for the construction of a new lot nearby.

But, some town officials say they should fight what they believe amounts to bullying.

The town Select Board has spent months questioning whether the building at 11 School St. should be redeveloped into a parking lot, and it vetted the matter at a public hearing that began in January and closed April 13.

But, with much of Monday's board meeting consumed by debate about possibly losing the current lot for public use on nights and weekends, deliberations were continued to its next meeting, May 18.

Phillips International Holdings Corp. wants to buy and raze what now is a laundromat and apartments to build a lot that would add to its parking stock for its Berkshire Block building at Bridge and Main streets. It owns 41 spaces behind it, and the new lot would give the New York City-based firm a total of 75 spaces for that property.

The building houses a handful of retail shops, including two restaurants. Upstairs are more than 30 offices whose tenants use the existing spaces behind it.

This idea troubled the Planning Board, which, in December, gave the project a negative recommendation because it traded community services and housing for a private lot, and didn't adhere to the intent of zoning there.

Also, zoning there makes it difficult to build on that parcel, and the owners have struggled to sell it. The Planning Board since has voted to work on amending the zoning, to make it easier to redevelop buildings in that area into something with broader community benefit.

Select Board member Leigh Davis said she is troubled by an attempt from the company to sway her vote. She said she alone received a phone call from Town Manager Mark Pruhenski explaining what was at risk should the permit be denied. Other board members said they understood that the company always had dangled this threat.

"Now, I'm really uncomfortable," Davis said. "I think we're being bullied and I do not think we should cater to this."

Messages and emails left with representatives of the company were not returned this week.

Davis also said a new lot will be assessed about $400,000 less than it is currently and that, in the future, it would generate less money for town coffers.

Other members of the board indicated they didn't like the situation, either, but worry that the company will make good on its threat.

"The other side of it is that we play hardball and we lose," said member Kate Burke.

On Tuesday, Planning Board member Jonathan Hankin said in a letter to the board and reporters that Burke should recuse herself from the coming vote since she is the manager of the Great Barrington Farmers Market, which "would be most adversely affected by the threatened closure."

The market abuts the parking lot and is used by shoppers during the May-through-October market season.

Board Vice Chairman Ed Abrahams said they might be hemmed in by necessity.

"This is one of those times we can't get what we want and we can't get perfect," he said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.