Developers want to bring grocery store, new housing to former Price Chopper site

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LEE — A Berkshire-based developer wants a shot at putting dozens of market-rate apartments and a community market on the site of the former Price Chopper.

Michael Charles and Brian Cohan, principals of Benchmark Development in Great Barrington, have unveiled conceptual plans for a 60-unit, four-story housing complex where the shuttered supermarket now stands between Main and West Park streets. They also are proposing a mixed-use, three-story building of 20 apartments and a first-floor grocer fronting Main Street between the historic Morgan House Inn & Restaurant and the building that houses Zabian's.

Benchmark is behind the Powerhouse Square development on Bridge Street in downtown Great Barrington. The estimated $15 million project, scheduled to be completed by Memorial Day, would include an expanded Berkshire Co-op Market as its anchor, along with condominiums.

The estimated $18 million to $22 million Lee project has to clear a regulatory roadblock before the developers draw up specific plans for the town to consider. The existing downtown zoning won't allow new buildings at the height proposed, even though Charles and Cohan said their structures won't be higher than 50 feet. The tallest Main Street structure that predates zoning stands at 54 feet.

A proposed zoning amendment to the downtown business district would allow the developers to seek Lee Planning Board approval for project aspects that don't meet current zoning regulations. The board has scheduled a public hearing on the zoning change for 6:45 p.m. Monday at Lee Memorial Town Hall. Annual town meeting representatives on May 9 would have the final say on the amendment.

The developers noted that the zoning change doesn't guarantee project approval.

"The objective is to create a pathway to apply for a special permit," Charles said.

"We just want a shot to get to the plate," added Cohan. "We expect to go through the ringer during the permit process."

The developers' remarks came during a two-hour meeting Wednesday with about 30 residents and town officials, who were somewhat divided on the revised zoning and the scope of the project.

Selectman and Planning Board member Thomas Wickham said the zoning change is being rushed for the sake of the project.

"This is a big project that will affect us for 40 years. I'd like to see more study for this site," he said. "These are very large buildings for the downtown."

Given that several of the tall Main Street buildings are historic, downtown resident and town meeting representative Deidre Consolati believes the new ones would adversely affect "the fabric of the town."

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Project proponents want to give Benchmark a chance to enhance the downtown and are backing the zoning amendment.

"We have someone who wants to come in and spend money here. Why do we want to put them off?" said Richard Brittain. "Why are we trying to strangle them?"

Town meeting representative Peter Sorrentino added, "Let's get this project for the downtown."

One of Benchmark's key selling points is bringing back a retail grocer to the center of Lee.

"We want a market that caters to the local community," Cohan said.

Lee has been without a centrally located food store since Schenectady, N.Y.-based Price Chopper closed the supermarket in late July 2017. Price Chopper was the only grocer within walking distance of downtown, including the Hyde Place, Crossway Village and Brown Memorial Court housing projects, where many senior citizens live.

Lee's lone supermarket, Big Y, is located near Exit 2 of the Massachusetts Turnpike, a mile from Main Street.

Benchmark views its project as an upgrade for the downtown's south end. The developers plan to reorganize what they call an "undefined and messy" parking situation for their site and several of the neighboring buildings. They also plan to carve out a new, privately maintained street between the post office on Consolati Way and West Park Street, which has been an unofficial cut-through for motorists looking to avoid the busy intersection of Main and West Park.

In November 2017, Price Chopper further alienated townspeople by placing six large concrete blocks at the property's West Park Street main entrance/exit.

Charles and Cohan said they will move on if the town rejects their project for downtown Lee.

"We like downtown development sites because of the energy we get from a New England downtown," Charles said.

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


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