Big project wins OK at old Belchertown State School

February 18, 2024 : Daily Hampshire Gazette, Emilee Klein

BELCHERTOWN — The town has signed off on the largest project yet in its long-desired efforts to redevelop the former Belchertown State School — a 100-unit mixed-income residential complex that also includes converting an old administration building into a town archive and a museum.

“If you look at the zoning designation this property is going to be on and if you go down the list of the preferences, this project checked a lot of the boxes. I am really quite pleased with how many boxes it checks,” Planning Board member Elizabeth Pols said during the meeting on Feb. 12.

The board unanimously approved Brisa Ventures LLC’s site plan for Carriage Grove. The plan includes three apartment buildings with 80 units and 28 units of townhouses. The plan calls for solar panels on the roofs to keep emissions of the residential area close to net-zero, and native plants for landscaping. The property will encourage walking and biking with walking paths connecting the internal areas of the development. A center courtyard with a playground will overlook the mountains.

The second part of the site plan includes a redesign of the state school’s administration building into a town archive and museum documenting the history of the Belchertown State School. The renovated building will also have space for the development’s management offices, maintenance equipment storage and local food vendors.

The project is part of a larger plan that began in 2012 to reuse the 400,000-square-foot state school property, which is being overseen by MassDevelopment and the Belchertown Economic Development and Industrial Corp. Officials said in the summer of 2021 that the current housing project would be the first phase of a larger partnership with Brisa Ventures that was to include more commercial and residential development.

Christopher Heights, an 83-unit assisted living facility, opened at Carriage Grove in 2018. Belchertown Day School, an early childhood education center, opened in September 2020.

Brisa’s mixed-income residential community must reserve least 10% of the units for affordable housing and count toward Belchertown’s subsidized housing index. Brisa has yet to finalize the exact number of affordable housing units, but the developer committed to the 10% minimum.

The board also approved a waiver for the development’s parking requirement, allowing Brisa to pave 196 parking spaces rather than 238. The approved plans outline several other areas to expand parking if needed. Paul Castrucci of Paul A. Castrucci Architects added that Brisa will reevaluate parking at 25%, 50% and 75% occupancy of the development and add spots as necessary.

“I don’t think we should build out to the full number. I think our parking regulations are a little overboard,” Planning Board Chair Daniel Beaudette said. “If they have any problems, they have made some accommodations to expand parking if it becomes necessary or do something different.”

Pioneer Valley Transit Authority representative Paul Burns mentioned that agency has the funds to add a bus stop on Route 45 service, provided that there is adequate space for the bus to pull up to the buildings. The PVTA will also increase service for the route, passing the nearby Eastern Hampshire District Court up to 12 times a day.

After multiple residents expressed their disapproval of the development and suggested the project go to Town Meeting, Beaudette took a moment to address the dissenters by noting that the zoning allows residential housing, and it’s not the Planning Board’s job to review the developer’s business plan or a project’s economic impact on the town.

“I’m sorry but it’s zoned for housing. That was put as the Business Neighborhood Center District at Town Meeting (in 2014) and it’s not going to go away because people disagree with it,” he said. “We can’t sit on this property for the next two or three decades hoping someone will do it our way.”

With the site plan officially approved, Brisa Ventures Principal Hammad Graham said the Carriage Grove design team can now focus on the intricacies of the design such as unit size.

“We’re taking the information that we received throughout the process and translating that to design work, getting more granular in design to articulate clearly the unit sizes and open space configurations. It becomes a little bit more detailed now that we have the stamp of approval,” he said.

This also puts the project in good position to secure state funding. Graham added that state funding is competitive due to the number of projects, but Brisa will continue to encourage the state to prioritize Carriage Grove.

“When you think of development site, this is a very fun development sight because there is a lot that can be done, a lot that can be beneficial to a large part of the community, whether they live in town or they don’t,” he said. “It’s a very exciting project.”