The Affordable Housing Committee is recommending Arch Street Development as developer of the town garage and Phototech sites.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Affordable Housing Committee recommends the Board of Selectmen enter an agreement with Boston's Arch Street Development to build up to 85 units of housing on a pair of town-owned brown field sites.
On Thursday, the committee dissected the two proposals submitted in response to the town's request for proposals on the Photech property on Cole Avenue and former Town Garage site on Water Street.
After more than an hour and a half of deliberations — which followed months of discussion about the shape of the RFPs and extensive interviews with the applicants — it all came down to one criterion.
"The reason I'm in favor of Arch Street is it's for both sites and proposes the highest number of units," Chairwoman Catherine Yamamoto said. "Even if they were to reduce Photech from [the proposed] 60 to 40, it would still be 65 units as opposed to 46 units."
The 46-unit proposal came from a partnership of Boston's Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development and Pittsfield's Berkshire Housing Development Corp.
The Women's Institute proposal called for a single three-story building on the former mill site at 330 Cole Ave. Arch Street proposes a 25-unit apartment building at 59 Water St. and a development of townhouse clusters on Cole Avenue.
During their interviews earlier this month
, Arch Street's principals told the committee that the size of the Water Street site made it difficult to develop a "stand alone" project there.
In light of that assessment, the committee on Thursday expressed concern that it could be "now or never" for the Water Street site.
"We have been telling the town for years that we have a critical need for housing," Vice Chairman Charles Bonenti said when it came time to make a final decision.
"How are we going to explain to them that we had an opportunity to develop Water Street and we did not take it?"
All six of the eight committee members present for the vote agreed to recommend Arch Street to the Selectmen, which plans to take up the question at its April 15 meeting. Town meeting several years ago authorized the board to dispose of both properties.
They committee also agreed to give the Selectmen the minutes of the two meetings during which the developers were interviewed and a memo outlining the pros and cons of each developer's proposal.
Although the vote was unanimous in the end, the victory was far from a slam dunk for Arch Street.
The commonwealth's Chapter 30B procurement regulations do not allow for a numerical grading of competing bids, but as the committee members shared their individual evaluations of the proposals in 12 categories, it was clear the Women's Institute bid had an advantage.
In fact, on a grading scale that included "highly advantageous," "advantageous," "not advantageous" and "unacceptable," the overall quality of the Arch Street proposal earned grades of "not advantageous" from four of the seven members who participated in Thursday's deliberations (committee member Leigh Short was present for the discussion but had to leave before the final vote).
Several of the committee members expressed serious reservations about the Arch Street proposal, including questioning whether the developer could pull off the 60-unit development it envisions for Cole Avenue.
"Frankly, they didn't give me a lot of confidence they had given a lot of engineering thought to that site," said Short, an engineer by trade.
"I think that's why they have 60 units. ... I think 60 cannot be done, frankly.
"They didn't think at all about that flood plain and how they're going to get 60 units on there."
By contrast, Short and other members of the committee gave the Women's Institute/Berkshire Housing group credit for enlisting Williamstown engineering firm Guntlow & Associates, which has experience on the Cole Avenue site from a previous project that never came to fruition.
Other members argued that the Arch Street group has an impressive track record and strong references. Even though it did not come into the process with an engineer and an architect identified — as the Women's Institute did — the Boston firm that developed North Adams' Clark Biscuit apartments would hire competent engineers, Dylan Stafford said.
Stafford, who identified himself as the kind of young, low-income demographic the committee is looking to build for, said that maximizing units was his highest priority.
Cheryl Shanks agreed, saying she believed both Arch Street and the Women's Institute/Berkshire Housing group were capable and either could accomplish the development they proposed.
"I, like Dylan, think that the aggregate amount of affordable housing we get matters," Shanks said. "And I think the fact that Arch Street is able and, in fact, insistent on using 59 Water St., is important to me.
"I've lived here for 20 years, and that site is exactly the way it was. If we don't build on it now, I think it's going to be another 20 years before something happens with it."
And if the town does not develop subsidized housing on Cole Avenue and Water Street, it is not likely to develop it anywhere else any time soon.
"Generally, I see that these two sites are the sites we're going to have for affordable housing in Williamstown," Bonenti said. "The last couple of years have shown us we're going to have pushback on every other site we try to do it, so this is it."