Our Opinion: Mall's revival a daunting task

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The report conducted by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission did a comprehensive job of exploring the relative merits of five possible new uses for the Berkshire Mall, if and when it is freed up for a post-retail future. The report may have done an even better job of realistically pointing out the daunting nature of such a transformation.

The study was funded by the state and the Baker Hill Road District, a tax zone which has a vested interested in the future of the property. The mall has long since lost its critical mass of stores and after years of missed deadlines for tax payments, ownership sold the mall to Durga Property Holdings. Durga paid off the tax debt owned to the town of Lanesborough and the district but was late with its first tax payment in August since assuming ownership.

The BRPC report titled "Berkshire Mall: Future Use Study" looks toward a brighter future. ("Thinking outside the big box," Eagle, Sept. 15.) Of the five options explored, "Green and Agriculture" may be the most promising because no rezoning would be required and only $2 million in new construction would be required. Under this scenario, the site would be used for indoor growing with greenhouses, food processing facilities and solar fields in use.

"Sports," calling for a combination of indoor and outdoor activities, also requires no zoning changes but would need about $75 million in new construction. "Family Entertainment" with recreational activities and dining options is also zoned properly and calls for about $87 million in new building. "Training and Technology" would require a special zoning permit and $15.5 million in new construction. It may be redundant given the presence of the Berkshire Innovation Center. Finally, "Senior Transitional Care," which calls for independent living "cottages" and rehab units would require "extensive" rezoning and about $115 million in new construction.

The costs of removing parts of the current mall structure, which the report says would be necessary with all options, ranges from the relatively modest ($10 million for Senior Transitional Care, $25 million for Sports) to $58 million for "Green and Agriculture," $85 million for Family Entertainment, and $88 million for "Training and Technology."

Three decades ago, when the mall was built, a complex covering 86 acres — larger than the Pittsfield Municipal Airport — may have made sense in theory but it was never practical in reality even in its pre-Internet sales heyday. The parking lots were always too large, except for perhaps around Christmas, and now stand as a blight on the landscape. The mall building itself has been slowly going to seed.

For any of these options to even be explored, the mall will have to emerge in the hands of someone willing to invest in a whole new concept. It can be done, and has been to one degree or another in malls around the region. Massachusetts government has pitched in to boost promising mall reuse prospects. The BRPC report offers a rough blueprint as to how the mall could re-emerge as a contributor to the Berkshire economy. But right now there is neither the will nor the way.

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