Residents call for bold new ideas or tear down of former Housatonic School

The vacant Housatonic School building is becoming a maintenance nightmare according to residents who urged the town to find a new approach in the efforts to deal with the 14,000-square-foot structure.

GREAT BARRINGTON — It's the heart of Housatonic, and it's falling apart. It gets worse: The former Housatonic School also is not attracting the private investors town officials have so longed for to take a historic, yet failing, building off their hands and transform it.

It has been sitting vacant for more than a decade, and the town is working on its third request for a proposal for potential investors to put the former elementary school back on the tax rolls.

But first, town officials invited residents to the Housatonic Community Center on Tuesday to listen to their thoughts. The clock is now ticking on a 90-day timeline that Town Manager Mark Pruhenski said last month would "keep this project moving."

Locals flocked to the meeting and said that a shift in the town's approach has to happen, and soon, since the building is becoming a maintenance nightmare promising only more expense and hassle.

Some say it might be time to just tear it down and make a central community green with a pavilion for concerts and other events. Others said to shift thinking away from seeking a profit, but to instead envision some sort of renovation as a public works project paid for by taxpayers as a benefit to the community.

"We didn't build a library to make a profit," said Daniel Teigen. "It's a community center."

Resident Suzanne Fowle suggested that tearing it down could be as strong a step toward recaptured "vibrancy" there as restoring it might be.

"A green space could be more vibrant than what we have now," she added.

In 2013, the 14,000-square-foot building was mothballed after the school district moved students to new schools, and later, its own offices to Stockbridge. The district at the time estimated that bringing the building up to code would cost $900,000, and lead paint and asbestos remediation would run about $850,000. The town this year has earmarked a total of $1.3 million for future repairs and work on the school, which costs about $5,000 a year to maintain.

Town officials have grown impatient. In 2017, they stopped working with a local builder who had proposed a public/private partnership with the town to turn the school into a business incubator, offices and affordable housing. It was the uncertainty about financing that halted that possibility.

A developer with deep enough pockets to consider an aging, 110-year-old building in a village without high-speed broadband and natural gas lines has proved elusive. Some say it's time to cut bait and either take the building down, at an estimated $850,000 expense, or go bold with completely new ideas.

"We're out of time," said Ellen Lahr, a resident who also does public relations work for the town. She said that paying for "serious marketing" might be helpful.

She also said the town might consider investing in affordable senior housing there and noted that the Lee Central School had been converted into apartments for the elderly, given local housing shortages for seniors.

This is still possible, said Timothy Geller, executive director of the Community Development Corp. of South Berkshire.

He said the corporation in 2010 had responded to the town's first RFP, but that it wasn't selected because of "personalities behind the scenes."

Geller said that when affordable housing is added to a plan that could include retail and offices, it draws in state funding.

"It brings a lot of money to the table," he said.

Others said they simply want the school to be a community space, possibly for artists, and that the town should invest more in Housatonic, which, residents say, sometimes feels like an afterthought. Resident Tom Norton said that whatever is decided, the town should retain control over this spot since it is so central to this village community, sandwiched by a park and the Community Center. Some were horrified by the idea of tearing down the school, and Stephen Donaldson suggested that the sense of place has strong meaning in this village.

"We're all emotionally connected to every building in town," he said.

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