Center at Lenox developers say tenants are lining up ahead of planned renovations

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LENOX — Developers proposing a multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion in the Center at Lenox complex off Route 7/20 already have signed lease agreements with two retail tenants.

Representatives of WS Asset Management, which operates the 36-acre site at 489 Pittsfield Road, assured members of the Zoning Board of Appeals on Wednesday that the project is poised for takeoff if special permits gain approval.

"We do have tenant interest and a couple of leases signed for the former Price Chopper building," said Jeff Curley, vice president of development for the company, based in Chestnut Hill, just west of Boston. "We're making a decision to remodel that building and do some redevelopment of the facade."

Curley declined to identify the businesses.

The owner of the complex, MEC Lenox Associates, is seeking modifications to special permits and site plans approved by the ZBA in 2010 and 2011, and a new special permit to allow extension of the roadside store occupied by Verizon Wireless to accommodate an additional business, potentially a restaurant.

The complex hosts the new $8 million Price Chopper that opened in 2011, Marshall's, CVS, Verizon Wireless and a Berkshire Bank branch. The former Price Chopper on the site, closed when the chain's new supermarket opened, has been vacant for the past eight years, along with adjoining retail space that had been used by a Hallmark card store and a smaller CVS replaced by the new, larger pharmacy, as well as a RadioShack that closed last year.

The estimated construction cost for the rehabilitation of the center's former Price Chopper and the associated site improvements is $4 million, Curley said.

Renovation of the old Price Chopper building includes reconfiguration to accommodate up to seven stores in spaces ranging from 2,000 to 11,000 square feet, while an eighth business could go into the former RadioShack location adjoining Marshalls department store.

If the project wins approval, Curley said later, the renovation and construction could begin by the end of April and should be completed by this fall. Construction hours would be limited to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays.

Curley noted that the 2011 special permit revision had contemplated demolishing that structure and creating a new building adjacent to Marshalls to accommodate a potential Kohl's department store. But that plan was scuttled in the face of a deepening recession and headwinds buffeting big-box retailers.

The current plan includes potential construction of two new retail buildings in the vacant lot next to Marshalls, but only if and when prospective tenants commit to the space.

Dr. Clifford Snyder, a longtime ZBA member, reminded Curley that seven years ago "we were assured you had contracts and tenants for all these spaces, no problem, that people were really interested."

But, Snyder said, "that was nonsense; nobody moved in and it didn't happen. We have issues in town with people coming in with plans and then they don't follow through. My concern is that this is not a new graveyard next to the old graveyard."

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Curley assured him that "we wouldn't be here if we didn't have a couple of tenants." He cited the "downturn in the economy that had an effect on our entire portfolio" for the failure to deliver the plan approved in 2010 and revised in 2011. He also told Snyder that he had expected the opening of the new, larger Price Chopper and a free-standing CVS to attract other businesses to the complex.

"We have signed leases for two spaces and we have a lot of other tenant interest," Curley emphasized several times.

"We want to start construction in 30 to 45 days because we have enough interest, but I'd like to defer to the tenants to make public announcements," he told the board members when asked to identify the retailers.

"I think it's a grand idea to renovate that vacant space," ZBA member Clayton Hambrick said.

"This is consistent, is it not, with what we approved years ago?" acting ZBA Chairman Robert Fuster Sr. asked. "It is very similar," Curley confirmed, referring to parking, signage and lighting as well as the construction scenario. The major change is renovation rather than demolition of the old Price Chopper structure, he said, as well as expansion of the Verizon building.

"It seems to me these are really modest changes," Fuster Sr. said.

"It breaks my heart to see those rotting-away, vacant buildings," ZBA member Robert Fuster Jr. said. "I think it would be great to see something thriving, it would be a benefit to the town."

Lenox Fit owner Suzanne Merritt, who purchased the former Lenox Fitness Center in 2015 and spent nearly $1 million renovating and expanding it, asked Curley how retailers are chosen in order to avoid diluting the market for existing businesses.

She voiced concern over a potential new gym that could locate in the Center at Lenox, competing with several other similar businesses nearby as well as her own a mile away.

"A lot of it is based on tenant interest, if they've done market research to suggest that there are customers here," Curley said. "It's not something we're rolling the dice on."

Curley told The Eagle after the hearing that a fitness facility is not among the two tenants who have signed leases.

He noted that a gym "is among the uses we would consider here. We think it's a good complement to the shopping center."

But Merritt questioned the impact of a potential new competitor on "the people who reside here, work here, pay taxes here, and have taken on great investments to maintain and grow businesses here."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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