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Photech Mill Housing Project Could Break Ground in Spring
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:03AM / Tuesday, December 10, 2019
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Elton Ogden of Berkshire Housing addresses the Select Board on Monday evening.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The former Photech mill building on Cole Avenue could be used for housing as early as summer 2021.
On Monday, the Select Board heard from the president and CEO of Berkshire Housing Development Corp., who said the Pittsfield-based non-profit was close to finalizing funding for the $16 million project that will utilize the existing mill building and build townhouses at 330 Cole Ave., creating 41 units of affordable housing.
"Last week, we had a call with the state folks who are behind tax credits and soft debt, and we mutually agreed to try to close the deal in February or March," Elton Ogden said. "That aligns with the construction season. We have a little bit more asbestos abatement to be done … and we would anticipate about a 14-month construction schedule, which, again, would line up nicely.
"We could get a certificate of occupancy and begin leasing in the nice weather and give us the summer and fall [of 2021] to fill the building."
Ogden was before the board to seek an extension on an option to develop the property first entered into by the town and BHDC — doing business as "Berkshire Fund Inc. — in April 2014.
Although a longtime critic of developing affordable housing on the site made one last effort to halt the process, the board ultimately voted 5-0 to grant that extension, which Ogden said he hopes not to use. Instead, with the funding — largely from low-income tax credits — in place, his firm hopes to close on the town-owned property in the first quarter of next year.
That closing will be a major milestone triggered by the efforts of the now dormant Affordable Housing Committee, which went through a lengthy process to find a potential developer for 330 Cole Ave. and a second town-owned site, the former town garage site on Water Street that currently is a dirt lot used for parking.
In the end, the Select Board at the time awarded the rights to develop just one of the two properties, the Photech site, to Berkshire Housing, which already was developing another project, the Highland Woods senior housing apartments.
Unlike Highland Woods, the planned site at Photech will not be age restricted. It will be income restricted. One hundred percent of the 41 rental units at 330 Cole Ave. will be limited to residents making 60 percent of the area median income as determined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Twenty percent of the Photech units will be restricted to residents who earn 50 percent or less of the AMI.
Kevin Kennefick, who lives next door to the former Photech site, at 308 Cole Ave., asked the Select Board to "be brave" and pump the brakes on the development.
Kennefick noted that he has long supported other development plans for the "brown field" site but he has come to see the housing plan as flawed for two reasons.
"When [Tropical Storm] Irene came, it was clear to me that this is floodable land," Kennefick said.
He encouraged the Select Board to look at reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warns that New England's weather will grow "hotter, more humid with heavy rain events."
"This land is going to flood before the debt is paid on this project," Kennefick said. "I would give that [flooding] a 70 percent chance. That's not my risk. It's [Ogden's] risk and his partners' risk.
"The other thing the report states is that governments will not be able to move fast enough, so it's up to local people to make wise decisions. This town is very clearly, from its actions, disregarding those things. Maybe I'm wrong. I've been wrong before."
Kennefick also said it does not make sense to put more subsidized housing in the part of the town that is most economically stressed already.
"You have the biggest economic disparity town in the state putting all the low-income housing in one place," he said. "What kind of community are we developing?"
Ogden told the Select Board that the project's designers are very cognizant of the flood potential of the Hoosic River-adjacent site and have elevated the residences 12 inches above the flood plain.
Select Board member Hugh Daley noted that Berkshire Housing could not get insurance otherwise.
"This [development] has been scrutinized by the lender advisers," Ogden said. "All of the lenders have engaged engineers to scrutinize their plans. Certainly, being close to the river, they've focused on that.
"We also have to comply with FEMA regulations related to building on a riverside. There are a lot of eyes on this, and we're trying to make those conclusions easy for them to make."
As for the economic conditions of the area, Ogden noted that, unlike 330 Cole Ave., Kennefick's neighborhood could be gentrified.
"These are rental units, and they will be affordable in perpetuity," he said.
Select Board member Anne O'Connor noted that she lives in income-restricted affordable housing and that the development of 330 Cole Ave. will enhance Kennefick's neighborhood.

Neighbor Kevin Kennefick, right, asks for the plans to be halted. He has questioned the wisdom of concentrating low-income housing in one area of town.
"My dream is that when it's done and five years in … you'll come around full circle and say: This has been a great boon to our neighborhood," O'Connor said.
Kennefick noted that he is a proponent of affordable housing and has volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. But he questioned the logic and fairness of concentrating low-income housing in one neighborhood of a town of abundant wealth.
"If this project goes forward … once shovels hit the ground, I'd encourage the board to actually think about ways to help my neighborhood," he said. "We can't afford your hope. These are people with difficult situations. Waiting five years for it all to be OK is not where they're at. They're really living day to day."
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