Walker House in Lenox may find new life as 8 rental units


LENOX — A badly run-down 1804 house in the Historic District is on the road to rescue.

In a rare, rapid display of unanimity, the Zoning Board of Appeals has enthusiastically approved a special permit from a subsidiary of the Allegrone Cos. for a $1 million historical restoration of Walker House in order to reopen it as eight market-rate rental apartments.

A.C. Enterprises, LLC, has a purchase and sale agreement for the former bed-and-breakfast inn with its owners, Margaret and Richard Houdek, who bought the 64 Walker St. site in 1980. The inn ceased operating about a year ago.

"We can't do for the house what it needs," Margaret Houdek told the ZBA members. "We're very excited; we don't think anyone can do it better than the Allegrone group. I get teary-eyed every now and then, but it will be beautiful."

The purchase price has not been disclosed, said Realtor John McLean, pending a closing of the transaction expected in October. The town assessed the property's value as $767,300 last year. But since then, an acre was sold to the adjacent Kemble Inn for parking, likely reducing the value to between $600,000 and $700,000.

The special permit with waivers was approved 4-0 at a 90-minute meeting on Wednesday in keeping with the Residential Inclusionary Development zoning bylaw, which aims to encourage affordable and market rate residential development in all of the town's zoning districts.

A portion of the 1.17-acre site is zoned residential, while the rest is commercial.

"The development of high-quality, market-rate rental apartments in an historically restored structure will serve community needs by upgrading an important historic structure in a prominent location and adding to the residential mix of accessible dwellings in the center of Lenox," attorney Philip Heller stated in the application for the Allegrones.

He pointed out "a significant positive" financial impact since the restored property will have an estimated value of about $1 million, generating about $12,330 in annual real estate taxes. The new residents "will add to the economy of the town," the application asserted.

According to town bylaws, developments of 15 units or less do not require affordable units, Heller said under questioning at the ZBA public hearing. Rental prices have not yet been determined.

Ahead of the vote, ZBA member Robert Fuster, Jr., called the Allegrone presentation "excellent" and declared that the project meets the requirements of the town's zoning bylaws.

"It's a very convincing and detailed presentation," Robert Fuster, Sr., stated. "It meets all the requirements for a special permit. This is an absolutely perfect use for this property, maybe even the best use it could be put to. It puts eight families into the downtown area, which we need."

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"This historic building in the center of Lenox is falling apart, not because of lack of love and care; it's just an old building that requires a lot of attention and money, it's hard to do," he said. "I'm pleased that someone of the calibre of the Allegrone family is coming forward to do this project. I'm astounded at their ability and it's going to benefit this town dramatically. This is a boon to Lenox, a great idea."

ZBA alternate member Jed Hall said he liked the thought of having working people downtown patronizing local businesses. "I'm impressed with the detail, you guys have done a good job," he said. "There is some true expertise that has to be brought to this, it's in a very bad state of disrepair."

"I get under these circumstances why the petitioner does not need to provide an affordable unit," said acting Chairwoman Shawn Leary Considine. "The intent of the bylaw is to preserve buildings like this. To take this building and decide not to tear it down and say it's a lost cause is an admirable thing to do."

The house was built as a residence for Judge William Walker and, later, for Judge Julius Rockwell. In 1906, it was sold to the Curtis family, proprietors of the Curtis Hotel. From the 1960s until 1973, it was a dormitory for the nearby Lenox School for Boys.

"The Walker House has great historical significance established by its history, but has been under-utilized due to its current poor architectural condition, site conditions and use of the building," the special permit application stated.

The project requires review by the town's Historic District Commission. If it is approved, construction would begin next spring.

During the ZBA public hearing, Stephen Peters, senior warden of Trinity Episcopal Church, said "the redevelopment would contribute to the revitalization of downtown."

Kemble Inn owner Scott Shortt, whose property adjoins Walker House, welcomed the development "as adding some vibrancy and character to the downtown, which is important. I think it will be great to see it renovated and see eight families living there."

However, he emphasized that prospective renters should be aware of his adjacent inn, which is "trying hard to transform into a more of a boutique hotel and restaurant. We do have events, as this board is aware of."

McLean, the Realtor representing the Houdeks, discussed the difficulty of selling the property over the past few years "because the structural problems and what needed to be done was a huge issue."

"I speak for the building and it needs to be saved, very badly," he told ZBA members. Pointing to the Allegrones' "expertise in what they do in historic preservation in Berkshire County and all over the Northeast, I think they've come up with a wonderful plan to save this building and preserve it the right way."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.


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