Participants in Thursday's 'listening' session look over possible housing designs for the Photech site created by Williams College students.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Affordable Housing Committee on Thursday held its second public listening session as it continues the process of writing a request for proposals to develop town-owned brown field sites.
Thursday's session dealt with the former PhoTech mill property on Cole Avenue, a 4.8-acre parcel that was taken for tax reasons and has been an eyesore on the town's north end since the mid-1980s.
About 45 people participated in a the event, including a large cohort of Williams College students, who brought along conceptual designs they created as part of an environmental design seminar they are taking with professor Sarah Gardner.
Amherst-based consultant Connie Kruger, who is helping the committee develop an RFP, explained that the process of writing the request is essential to the town creating a development residents can live with.
"The town is setting the table with the RFPs," said Kruger, who also is helping the committee develop an RFP for the former town garage site on Water Street.
"[The project] is not going keep coming back to the committee for redesign and such after the developer is selected. ... Whatever your priorities are are going to go into the RFP. That becomes the foundation for your contract down the road.
"You're not going to be doing design review."
Many of those "priorities" came to light during the small group discussion period of the listening session.
One theme that emerged from several of the small groups of about seven participants apiece was green space. A number of residents said they hope any development at the site include open space, a playground for residents of the site and the neighboring Mill District and access to the Hoosic River.
Of course, that same river represents one of the main challenges to developing the site because, while it is 4.8 acres, much of that land is either in a 100-year flood plain or part of a potential wildlife habitat or both.
"It looks like about 75 percent of the site is in the habitat area," Kruger said. "We know we have a disturbed site, so we're not sure if this applies, but we have to pay attention to that."
Another potential drawback to the site that came up in a few of the small groups is the impact it would have on the neighborhood, which already has a number of moderate-income residents. Several participants at the meeting wondered whether it was wise to increase the concentration of residents at that end of the economic spectrum in one part of town.
On the other hand, just as many groups noted that the PhoTech site has the advantage of being close to the center of town, public transportation and amentities like Williamstown Elementary School and the Williamstown Youth Center.
Connie Kruger, a housing consultant, facilitated the session.
After the meeting, the chairman of the Affordable Housing Committee said she was pleased with the turnout and appreciated the thoughtful comments.
"I think any time you get more than 30 people in Williamstown, it's a crowd," Catherine Yamamoto said.
"It was evident that people preferred something that reflects the character of the [PhoTech] neighborhood. I think that really stood out — some sort of smaller scale, as opposed to a multi-story, flat-roofed building, which, if I recall correctly, was a little more acceptable at the Water Street site. But at this site, it was clear that a more residential kind of village atmosphere was preferred."
In addition to the small group discussions, the listening session included a visual preference survey conducted by Kruger's partner, Boston-based consultant Jennifer Goldson.
After a demographic survey of the room found that 39 percent of the respondents (16 of 41) lived in town for less than five years — a count reflective of the large student population, Goldson asked that only "residents or property owners" participate in the visual preference survey.
Despite that request, at least 40 people responded to each of the 15 visual survey polling questions.