Robin’s Restaurant, a Spring Street institution for eight years, will close its doors on Oct. 23 because of the College’s decision to demolish the building, which it owns, Williams officials said. The site where the restaurant currently stands will be used to house a new building for the American Legion, which the College is relocating so that the current Legion site can be used for the planned performing arts center.
Last March, the College chose a site on Walden Street, just off Spring Street, on which to erect the new performing arts center, made possible by the $20 million donation of alumnus Herbert Allen ’62. Once the College decided on this location, it became clear that plans for the center would require the demolition of the current American Legion post, as well as the College-owned building which houses the Travel Store.
The College negotiated with the Legion for about a year, proposing to buy and demolish the current building and, in exchange, build the group a new facility elsewhere on Spring Street. Last spring the Legion, whose current building has structural problems and is not accessible to disabled individuals, agreed.
The College’s original assumption, according to Helen Ouellette, vice president for the administration, was that a new Legion facility could be constructed on one of the two College-owned vacant lots adjacent to Robin’s. As officials explored this possibility, however, it became clear that, due to environmental concerns, the two empty lots were less preferable than the parcel on which the restaurant currently stands.
Throughout the process, Ouellette had been in touch with Robin Lenz, owner of Robin’s Restaurant, about the possibility that Williams would not renew her lease when it expires this October. As recently as last month, however, the College had not come to any firm conclusions about its plans for the site.
One month ago, Lenz decided that for business reasons she needed a definitive answer, and approached Ouellette. “In some ways I forced the issue,” Lenz recalled. “People sometimes make reservations with me a year in advance, and a very good customer wanted to make one for next April. I honestly felt I could not tell her whether I would be here or not.”
“We’re not 100 percent sure that that is where the American Legion building will go,” Ouellette explained. “But I had to give Robin a firm answer to work with, and as of last month, that answer was that we would not renew the lease.”
The College began working with Lenz to find an alternative Williamstown site for her restaurant, but as of now none has worked out, Ouellette said.
“The College is a very good landlord,” Lenz said. “Helen [Ouellette] said they couldn’t find anything else in their domain, and I believe her.”
Lenz did not consider relocating outside of Williamstown. “I can’t move out of the area,” she explained. “I have two children and the restaurant business is an 18-hour day. I can’t be very far from my kids.” Instead, she said, she is looking at the closing of her restaurant as an opportunity to do something new with the second half of her life.
“Sometimes it’s better to look at the opportunity rather than the loss,” she added.
College plans also involve the demolition of the building housing the Travel Store, forcing another local business to leave Spring Street.
Claudine AugÃ©, owner of the store, was notified as early as a year ago that the College would not renew her lease when it expired last May. Faced with the news, AugÃ© purchased the building on Route 2 that currently houses the bicycle shop The Spoke. Although The Spoke vacated the building this past weekend, AugÃ© anticipates that the extensive renovations she will have to perform will prevent her from moving in until the end of the year.
“[The College] was very up front with me, and gave me plenty of notice,” AugÃ© recalled, “so I don’t have any bad feelings towards the College at all.”
“I do feel bad for Robin,” she added. “Robin’s Restaurant was a great addition – she made that part of the street really alive.”
Obstacles to development
Before the College can begin construction of the new Legion building, it faces at least two serious obstacles – the first related to the area’s zoning, and the second related to its environmental significance.
Hank Art, a professor of biology who is also a member of the town’s Conservation Commission, explained the zoning issues.
Most of Spring Street falls into a town zoning area called the “Village Business District,” Art said, in which most commercial uses are permitted. This district, however, stops at the curb in front of Robin’s Restaurant at the south edge of Spring Street. The parcel of land on which Robin’s stands and the two adjacent lots are actually in a zone called “General Residence 1,” in which all commercial use is prohibited.
Robin’s Restaurant currently represents what is called a “non-conforming use.” In order to operate her restaurant, Lenz had to go before the Zoning Board and get special permission. Because this particular building has traditionally been a commercial site, however, Lenz had no problem obtaining the proper permits.
Once the restaurant building is torn down, however, any new building erected in its place would not necessarily receive the same permission. Because the Zoning Bylaws specifically prohibit the operation of “club[s] or other places for exercise, amusement or assembly,” permission to move forward on the Legion building might require a change in zoning. Requesting such a change would force the College to come before the Williamstown town meeting next May, where it would surely face opposition.
The second issue surrounding the Robin’s site and the two vacant lots is an environmental one, triggered by the application of two separate statues: the Rivers Protection Act and the Wetlands Protection Act.
The site of Robin’s Restaurant is located approximately 250 feet to the west of Christmas Brook, which is recognized as a river under the Rivers Protection Act. According to this statute, construction is prohibited in what is called the “inner riparian zone,” within 100 feet of any river.
Within the “outer riparian zone,” which falls between 100 and 200 feet of a river, construction is permitted only when the builder can demonstrate that, first, there will be no significant impact on the river, and second, that there is no alternative without causing serious economic hardship.
The easternmost of the two vacant lots next to Robin’s falls into the inner riparian zone, and thus could not be a candidate site for the Legion building. The other vacant lot, located between the first lot and Robin’s, is in the outer riparian zone. Because the College had already noted that the Robin’s site itself presented a viable “alternative” under the law, this site was passed over as well.
This process left only the site where Robin’s is currently located. While this parcel of land is outside the riparian zones of the Rivers Protection Act, it is not free from environmental legislation. A small tributary of Christmas Brook, which is not recognized as a river under the Rivers Protection Act, nevertheless is surrounded by certain “wetland indicator species” of vegetation that invoke another environmental statute, the Wetlands Protection Act.
This law specifies that within a certain “buffer zone” of 100 feet from a wetland’s border – in which most of the Robin’s Restaurant parcel falls – any proposed construction must pass before the town’s Conservation Committee. The committee decides whether the activity in the buffer will impact the wetland; if so, it can either forbid the activity or allow the applicant the opportunity to mitigate that impact.
At this point in the Legion building development process, it is impossible to determine what the effects of the construction might be, or whether these impacts could be successfully mitigated. If the College’s proposal does pass before the committee, however, Art said he will not participate in the proceedings due to a conflict of interest.
The College’s plan – for Robin’s, for the Legion building and for the south end of Spring Street in general – also faces serious opposition from Williamstown residents, some of whom have founded a group called the Williamstown Community Association (WCA) specifically to oppose the new performing arts center. Objections have also been raised by the town’s Board of Selectman.
One of the primary criticisms of the project is that the College’s forced closings of Robin’s and of the Travel Store are part of a larger trend of driving business away from Spring Street.
“The College’s policies of institutionalizing Spring Street have pushed businesses out to Route 2, because there’s no where else to go,” Zane Lumelsky, one of the founders of the WCA, said.
Selectman Daniel Gendron agreed. “The businesses on Spring Street are slowly disappearing,” he added. “The College is eroding what’s very special here and they don’t even see it.”
Ouellette responded that the town’s fears are unfounded. “A lot of people are concerned with that end of Spring Street and we share their concern,” she said. “Taking out a business raises fears that it’s going to reduce activity, but the end result will be to raise activity with new buildings that can sustain it,” namely, the new arts complex. According to Ouellette, the new center will include commercial space on its ground floor, “which could become a magnet for foot traffic.”
Gendron objects that the College is contradicting itself by maintaining that the new center will be both an educational facility and a commercial one. “What’s the point of this thing?” he asked. “I think the College has done double-speak on it from day one.”
More importantly, he added, the College’s attempt to replace lost businesses is just another example of the College deciding what the community needs.
“When you start designing the center of town as if it were your campus, you begin to lose the concept of a village,” he said. “It’s amazing that they can come up and buy somebody’s property and – boom – they can do with it what they please.”
Serious town opposition could pose problems further along the process of the performing arts center construction, perhaps even in the form of legal battles. “Our group is going to fight this every step of the way,” Lumelsky said of the WCA.
The College is not blind to the potential costs of such bitter resistance. “The [performing arts project] is incurring substantial ‘civic costs,’” said Art, the chair of the Committee on Priorities and Resources (CPR). “Usually those refer to dollar costs, but you could also talk about ‘civic costs’ in terms of being a good citizen,” he said.
Public opposition to the center “could wind up costing the College at the end of the day,” he added. “But the bigger cost is in our relationship with the town.”