Great Barrington rental complex plans draw traffic fears, and hopes that it will ease rental shortage

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GREAT BARRINGTON — A developer is hoping to build a rental housing complex at the end of a leafy residential street, but neighbors worry that the project, however lovely, will destroy their peace and their investment.

"Why pick the dead end of a street?" Ivan Kruh asked the developers at a community meeting they hosted Tuesday about their proposed Manville Street project. "All the traffic has to go past the residences."

But Sam Nickerson and Ian Rasch, of Framework Properties, said their proposal would not only enhance the street, and possibly the lives of its current residents, but would add fresh new rentals to a town with a housing shortage and a mostly decrepit, aging rental stock.

The company aims to build Manville Place on three parcels totaling 1.83 acres.

During a meeting at Construct Inc. on Tuesday, the two said they will formally present their proposal to the Planning Board in about a month.

In an email to The Eagle, Rasch said that while the plans are in their infancy, most new construction of similar projects in Berkshire County fall within a range of 45 to 66 units, far less than the approximately 200 they could built on this spot with town approval.

The meeting was held as a courtesy to accumulate ideas and concerns from residents in the neighborhood. Members of the town Planning and Select boards were present, as was Town Planner Christopher Rembold.

Manville runs east to west off South Main Street, in a mixed residential/business area that was rezoned last year to prevent out-of-character developments like big-box stores. There are two multiple-dwelling buildings at the top of the street. The new complex would include a public green space, and possibly a coffee shop or cafe in a similar fashion to Framework's new 13-unit rental complex downtown at 47 Railroad St., which is fully occupied.

The developers said the Manville complex, within walking distance to the downtown and Fairgrounds Plaza with its Big Y supermarket, would be built to the highest aesthetic and environmental standards possible. Rasch said the rent likely would run from about $1,650 to $1,850, depending on whether it's a one-, two- or three-bedroom apartment.

He said that, based on market studies of Berkshire County, the project likely would be a boost to the economy and the community, and take some pressure off a super-tight rental market.

The developers also said they're not just trying to make a buck — that they live and work in this community, too.

"We're not flippers," Rasch said.

Potential drawbacks

That was no comfort to residents on this street that dead-ends at the railroad tracks. Nor was talk of improvements to the street, like a public green space.

"I don't think there's anything you can do to convince us that it will be better for us," Judie Haywood said.

Residents say any increase in traffic is the main concern.

Christopher Ryan, a resident, said making a turn onto South Main from Manville already is a challenge, given the higher speeds there.

"It's a little scary," he said.

Sarah Gapinski, Framework's civil engineer, said preliminary traffic studies show the potential for about 325 to 350 new trips per day — about 3 percent of the 11,500 daily car trips on South Main Street. She said a traffic consultant, to be hired soon, would drill down further.

But the developers said that what also is scary is what the previous zoning would have allowed: striplike development with far worse implications. The new zoning is more restrictive, and so more sensitive to an area with single-family homes. Both said they would be conscientious about density when they decide how many units to build.

Nickerson said the Planning Board's review would be another control on the size and character of the development, which also would sit in a water-quality protection zone.

"We can't just do whatever we want," he said.

Advantages seen

But the project has support from two people who know the local housing market well.

June Wolfe, Construct's housing director, said she did the math on Framework's price range and found that the cost is affordable for those with an income of $59,000 to $67,000.

"That's a nurse," Wolfe said, noting that these new rentals also would free up lower-cost rentals in town for those with lower incomes.

Jane Ralph, Construct's executive director, explained.

"The higher-scale expansion will open up housing in the middle," she said. "It's still not enough."

Ralph said the housing crunch in town has her living in Otis.

"I want you to do [the project] so I can move back to Great Barrington," she told the developers.

"The more housing at all levels, the more affordable housing there tends to be," she added, noting that Construct worked with Alander Construction, co-owned by Rasch, to build a recent affordable housing project on State Road.

While Rembold, the town planner, didn't speak in support of the project, he did say it aligned with the town's 2011 master plan, which aspires to be a sprawl-buster by encouraging building where the density already is, and preserving green and open space.

"Infill" development, as it is known, prevents tearing up open space for more buildings, and doesn't require expansion of utilities.

"It's not the suburban model of spreading sewer costs," he said. The master plan's intention, he added, is to "reinforce the village centers and residential neighborhoods that make this community so strong."

Nickerson said the creation and enhancement of these "walkable, pedestrian neighborhoods" is good for communities. And he pointed to the higher good to the town as a whole, given "decades of disinvestment" in the rental market, which he called "just an absolute crisis right now."

Yet on Manville Street, it is a very real in-my-backyard crisis. Kruh said he was "unconvinced" that there was anything positive about this for neighbors, given the traffic increase.

Nickerson said that while he understands "the suspicion," particularly that it could lower home values, he believes this would increase worth.

"That's not us," he said. "We're gonna be there forever; we're not planning on selling the building ever. We have every incentive. We're in the business of creating real estate value."

It might take more convincing. And some soothing: Rembold, saying he would make himself very available to answer questions about the project, gave the impression of a therapist, with Manville's residents his patients.

"Feel free to call every day," he told them.

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


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