Developer unveils final plans for former Eagle Mill in Lee

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LEE — After almost six years of multiple revisions, the principal developer of the former Eagle Mill has unveiled his refined plan for revitalizing a factory with a 200-year history.

Jeffrey Cohen of Mill Renaissance still envisions converting the majority of the site into affordable and market-rate housing and commercial/retail space, all fronted by a hotel along West Center Street. Changes from the plan Cohen discussed with town officials in September include the number and percentage of affordable units, the size of the hotel and the layout of parking.

Nevertheless, Cohen and his development team told the Lee Planning Board on Monday the proposal before them initiates the review process before several town boards, state agencies and the National Park Service.

"We start tonight ... a time-critical process for construction," he said.

Cohen has been working since 2012 to redevelop the 6.4-acre mill complex on the Housatonic River, which closed in 2008. The project, a combination of new construction and redevelopment, has picked up steam in recent months with the purchase of the property, enlisting of an established New England contractor, and town approval of developer-friendly zoning for the site.

A separate commercial entity, Eagle Mill Redevelopment, bought the manufacturing facility for $700,000 in late 2017, five years after negotiating a purchase-and-sale agreement for the property from an Albany, N.Y., entity. At the same time, Cohen announced that D.E.W Construction Corp. of Williston, Vt., known for historic preservation as well as new construction, would join him in developing the project's commercial aspects.

In January, a Lee special town meeting adopted a Smart Growth Overlay District for the industrial site and the seven homes and two business properties fronting the site the develop is buying to make way for the hotel. The creation of the zoning district would hasten redevelopment by allowing housing and other improvements to the property without the need for permits.

Some hurdles remain before construction can begin on the project, which initially had been pegged at $60 million to $70 million, Cohen said. Project architect Douglas Brown of DBVW Architects in Providence, R.I., tells The Eagle the cost estimate remains a fluid figure.

On the financial side, the town is hoping to land a MassWorks grant to upgrade the water main through the downtown. Water and other utilities need to be overhauled on the site. The park service also must approve historic tax credits crucial to landing public and private financing.

On the municipal side, the developer will seek approval Aug. 1 from the Lee Conservation Commission and eventually a special permit from the town's Zoning Board of Appeals to do work in the flood plain as the mill property is on the banks of the Housatonic River at the north end of Main Street. The five-member Planning Board, which will review and vote on proposal when it is officially submitted to the board, has the final say.

The residential component of the project calls from 80 units — including 28 market-rate units to be housed in the Union Mill, one of three historic buildings that will be renovated. The 52 apartments deemed affordable will occupy new construction on the eastern half of the site, replacing a 1939 brick addition and a post-World War II metal building, both to be demolished.

The previous proposal called for 122 apartments, 80 percent of which would have been affordable housing.

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Cohen has lined up Rees-Larkin Development of Boston to handle the residential construction with Berkshire Housing Development Corp. to manage the rental. Six years ago, Rees-Larkin completed the conversion of a century-old factory into the Silk Mill Apartments in the Morningside area of Pittsfield.

The hotel portion of the project, contingent on Cohen finding a developer, was also downsized from 100 to 72 rooms. If built, the proposed four-story lodging would front the complex along West Center Street. Cohen would need to demolish the buildings on the seven residential and two commercial properties he has bought or plans to buy to make way for the hotel.

The project's centerpiece is a public market located in the so-called Eagle Mill historic building that abuts the Union Mill. Cohen has said the market would be akin to Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, featuring independent food and craft vendors anchored by an eatery.

"The concept of the project is to create a community center to accommodate businesses and residents and be a link to Main Street," said Brown, the architect.

In order to meet the zoning-required parking for the mixed uses, the developer needs to buy four parcels across the street that stretch southward along the railroad tracks. The properties include the former Pumpkin Patch Quilts, now on Main Street, and the building next door housing Ingegni Salon and Baja Charlie's restaurant. Cohen says he plans to close on all four properties by early 2019.

Combined, the four lots would provide 162 of the 325 parking spaces needed, 72 designated for the hotel. If the hotel isn't built, off-site parking will be necessary, according to Cohen.

"There's not enough space [at Eagle Mill] no matter what we do," he said.

Planning Board members Thomas Wickham and Matthew Carlino were pleased with the latest rendition of the Eagle Mill revitalization. Carlino was especially pleased the factory smokestack is being saved, a symbol of the town's once dominant paper industry.

By the mid-1800s, the town had 25 paper mills with the Smith Paper Co., the country's largest paper producer through the 1870s.

By 2008, Lee was down to four. That year, the Eagle Mill was one of three in Lee that Schweitzer-Maduit International Inc. shut down in May, sending more than 150 workers to the unemployment line.

Onyx Specialty Papers, formerly a MeadWestvaco factory, on Route 102 is the only paper-based product company left in Lee.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.


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