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Massachusetts Undersecretary for Housing and Community Development Aaron Gornstein speaks at Friday's ceremony.

Groundbreaking Ceremony Held at New Williamstown Senior Housing

By Stephen Dravis
iBerkshires Staff
01:09PM / Friday, December 19, 2014

Officials pose at the site of the Highland Woods senior housing project. From left are: Selectwoman Jane Patton, Higher Ground President David Mangun, MountainOne Vice President Tracy McConnell, Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, Undersecretary for Housing and Community Development Aaron Gornstein, Community Economic Development Assistance Corp. Executive Director Roger Herzog, Williams College President Adam Falk and Berkshire Housing Development Corp. President and CEO Elton Ogden.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — They did not break any ground at Friday's groundbreaking for the Highland Woods senior housing project.

It was too cold, they decided, to have officials trying to plant gold shovels into frozen ground.

But maybe they should have given it a try. The development has been all about accomplishing feats previously thought impossible.

Officials from Williamstown, Pittsfield and Boston gathered on the site of the project on Friday morning to celebrate the start of the foundation that in a little over a year will support 40 units of low and moderate income housing for residents 55 and over. As often happens when the talk turns to Highland Woods, the focus was on the speed with which the project has come together.

"It was only three years, three months ago that [Tropical Storm Irene happened]," recalled David Mangun, the president of Williamstown non-profit Higher Ground, which sprang up after Irene to serve the residents of the flooded Spruces Mobile Home Park. "Two years ago in December, the folks at Higher Ground and other people were looking at what we could do in a permanent way.

"Two years ago in December, there was a vision, and the [Williams College] was asked to provide land. Just one year ago in 2013, the vision had been changed into a concept, an idea, a plan, that, with the work of Dietz Architect and the Women's Institute … and Berkshire Housing. That was just a year ago, so it is remarkable."

Berkshire Housing CEO Elton Ogden, who served as master of ceremonies on Friday, said the real clock began when the college donated the land off Southworth Street behind the existing Proprietors Field senior housing development.

"Just 18 months ago, this process started," Ogden said. "And there is building going on. Frankly, that is half the usual time."

It seemingly takes more time for Ogden to rattle off the list of stakeholders who helped move the project so swiftly.

Among them: Town Manager Peter Fohlin, who conceived the FEMA grant that funded most of the town's contribution (now at $2.85 million); Catherine Yamamoto, the passionate advocate for housing who tirelessly helped the town's Affordable Housing Committee and is an active member of Higher Ground; Undersecretary of Housing and Community Development Aaron Gornstein; the Boston-based Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development, BHCD's partner on the development; Mountain One Bank, which Ogden said was an early and supportive partner in financing the project; and the various town boards and committees that helped approve the project.

State Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, used the occasion to do a little light-hearted bragging.

"This is the way government and private partnerships should be," Cariddi said. "As I often say when I'm in Boston: The Berkshires do it better. We know how to work together and how to get it done."

Ogden singled out local attorney Donald Dubendorf for developing a permit application that allowed Highland Woods to clear the Zoning Board of Appeals in one meeting.

"For those of you who don't know, getting your 40B permit in one meeting is unheard of," Ogden said.

Also unheard of is the speed with which Highland Woods received crucial state administered tax credits. In July, Gornstein announced that the project was fast-tracked for approval because of the pressing need to build replacement housing in time for the planned closure of the Spruces under terms of the FEMA grant.

Gornstein was back in Williamstown on Friday.

"In my two and a half years at DHCD, I've probably been to more than a hundred groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings … all around the commonwealth, and I would have to say there's nothing more special and there's no place I'd rather be for my last groundbreaking than right here in Williamstown at this particular development," Gornstein said.

"You did it so quickly. I believe the application came in to DHCD in the spring of 2014. And to think that we're already in construction before the end of the year is probably a record for state government and for the commonwealth."

Williams College President Adam Falk was on hand Friday to celebrate the important town-gown endeavor to respond to the crisis of Irene in August 2011.

"I've been here for five years, and it's clear to me that the health of the college and the health of the community are one in the same," Falk said. "My sense that I lived in an extraordinary community was crystallized when so many people stepped forward [after Irene].

"Even though our part [the land] is small, we can be part of something so much larger. … And we benefit more than anyone because we're going to have 40 great new neighbors."

There is good chance at least some of those neighbors will be former residents of the Spruces. Even though the state funding attached to the project does not allow for housing to be created for a specific group of people, current and former Spruces residents will receive "extra points" in a weighted lottery that will determine the first 40 residents of Highland Woods, Ogden said on Friday.

Ogden said there already are about 30 people signed up for the lottery, and about half that number are former or current Spruces residents. He said he expects the lottery to take place about three months prior to occupancy, which is hoped to be January 2016, in time for the mobile home park's closure.



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