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Planning Board Chairwoman Elizabeth McGowan presides over Tuesday's 'listening session' on the hotel proposal.
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Tunnel City Coffee's Paul Lovegreen addresses the Planning Board as Jo Ellen Harrison looks on.

Williamstown Planners Mull Zoning Change for College Hotel

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Attorney Jamie Art, left, and Williams College spokesman James Kolesar answer questions from the Planning Board about the college's proposed boutique hotel for Spring Street.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Spring Street business community turned out in force on Tuesday evening to support a request to expand the Village Business zoning district to accommodate Williams College’s plan for a new hotel.

The Planning Board held a public listening session to get feedback on the proposal, which would allow the college to build a facility with up to 100 guest rooms at the south end of the commercial district and, ultimately, close the Williams Inn at the junction of Routes 2 and 7.

"My fear is we do turn into Lenox," said artist Jo Ellen Harrison, who operates a gallery and a women's clothing store on Spring Street. "It would make sense for me to close from November to June. That doesn't make for an active Spring Street.

"Having a new audience brought by [guests] at the inn is what keeps businesses alive."

College spokesman James Kolesar and attorney Jamie Art presented the request to the board, explaining that the college thinks the current inn is not sustainable and a Spring Street hotel would revitalize the street.

"Change is going to come," Kolesar said. "The thought was to have that change be as thoughtful as possible."

Kolesar said the college envisions a 60-bed hotel with an annex of 40 rooms that would close down much of the year. That would allow the college to have a capacity close to that of the 124-room Williams Inn during peak periods without the low-occupancy rates that plague the current establishment.

"The business model there is not sustainable," Kolesar said.

The college, which always owned the land on which the Williams Inn sits, purchased the note on the business earlier this year and facilitated the retirement of former owners Carl and Marilyn Faulkner. The college brought in Stockbridge-based Main Street Hospitality Group to manage the inn.

Kolesar said Williams hopes the new hotel would continue to be hub of community activity that the Williams Inn has been while moving foot traffic from Field Park, where there is no retail, to Spring Street, which is plagued by vacant storefronts and high turnover.

"I can't imagine a negative effect on other business districts," Kolesar said in answer to a question submitted by a resident in advance of the meeting. "The occupancy rate will be significantly higher — in town, not on the edge of town, which will feed that Village Business district more.

"There is bound to be a greater room tax [revenue]."

Kolesar said the college worked with Boston-based Pinnacle Advisory Group to analyze the local hospitality market. The school thinks a new hotel, properly marketed, would be draw more guests year round than does the current Williams Inn.

A couple of residents who attended Tuesday's meeting questioned the wisdom of moving the business from a highly visible location on the Field Park rotary to the bottom of Spring Street and asked if the college had considered a major renovation at the existing inn.

On the latter point, Kolesar said that a renovation would be problematic because it would mean closing the existing inn during construction - leaving the town without any of the rooms it provides. As for location, Kolesar said he thinks it is unlikely that tourists passing through town decide to stop at the inn.

Selectmen Hugh Daley, who attended the meeting in the audience, agreed.

"Williamstown is by definition a destination location," Daley said from the floor of the meeting. "By definition, people have decided to come here. What we want to do is create an experience that makes them want to come back."

Harrison and several business owners agreed that the experience of a new hotel near one of the town's retail centers is a win-win.

"There's a dump there now, and they want to put a pretty place in," said Tunnel City Coffee owner Paul Lovegreen, referring to the current use of the college-owned parcel under discussion. "I think that's great. Let them."

Lovegreen indicated that he had other issues with the college (a major landowner on Spring street) that he would enjoy addressing to the Planning Board, but he was all for this proposal.

The Planning Board decided to draw up expanded boundaries for the Village Business district for its Dec. 9 meeting and forward them to the Board of Selectmen. The Selectmen would then consider the proposal and send it back to the Planning Board for a recommendation to May's town meeting, where a zoning change would need to be approved by two-thirds of the town.

At that point, the hotel proposal would face reviews by the town's Conservation Commission (for its impact on the Christmas Brook resource area) and the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Assuming the zoning change is approved this May, Kolesar gave a ballpark estimate of 14 months for design and permitting and a year and a half of construction, which would put the project's completion somewhere in late 2017 or early 2018.

Kolesar said the college has not decided what it would do with the Williams Inn property at that point.

In other business on Tuesday night, the Planning Board gave its blessing to the college's plan to build a 60-unit residence hall on Stetson Court. Art, an attorney with Grinnell Partners who represented the college in both matters before the board on Tuesday, said the Stetson Court dorm will be "swing space" to allow the college to make renovations to other dormitories and is not part of a plan to expand the on-campus student population.

Tags: commercial development,   commercial zoning,   motels, hotels,   Planning Board,   Williams College,   

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