James Art gives presentation on retail and land holdings

May 4, 2016 by Emilia Maluf, Executive Editor

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The College owns a large commercial portfolio, including the Chandler Commercial Building. Grace Flaherty/Photo Editor.

In March, Director of Real Estate and Legal Affairs James Art gave a presentation to the President’s Administrative Group about the College’s retail and land holdings. Art works with Associate Vice President for Finance Matthew Sheehy on the College’s residential and commercial real estate portfolio.

The College owns 63 residential buildings throughout Williamstown. The buildings are comprised of 34 single-family homes, 24 duplexes and multi-family homes and three buildings with apartments. In total, the College has approximately 120 residential units. By the end of 2016, it will have acquired an additional six to 10 units at Cable Mills. The College’s properties extend from Williamstown to Mount Hope on Green River Road. With the exception of the Cable Mills units, the College owns and maintains all of its own properties.

The system for matching faculty and staff with residential units is similar to the student housing process. The College holds housing lotteries in the spring and winter, and an individual’s points determine his or her place in the selection order. Staff members are granted a three-year period of eligibility, while tenure-track faculty are eligible for up to nine years with an additional three years after they are granted tenure.

In the future, Art and Sheehy plan on scrutinizing the College’s residential land holdings. “[Art] and I will form a working group here shortly that’s going to take a look at a number of issues that we hear amongst faculty and staff about the real estate program,” Sheehy said. “We’ll be looking at a number of different aspects of it to make sure that it’s meeting the needs of what it’s intended to do.”

“We’re trying to figure out where the College should be five to 10 years from now in terms of its residential real estate portfolio,” Art said.

In addition to its residential properties, the College has a vast commercial portfolio.

On the east side of Spring Street, the College owns the Smith-Rudnick Building, which houses St. Pierre’s Barber Shop, the Chandler Commercial Building, home to Pappa Charlie’s Deli, Goodman’s Jewelers and Mad Macs, the Adams Block, which houses Harts’ Pharmacists and the Clip Shop, the Danforth Building, housing Spring Street Market and Café and Library Antiques, the Log, Mullen House and the B&L Building, home to Where’d You Get That!? and Tunnel City Coffee.

On the other side of the street, the College owns Denison Gatehouse, which houses Lickety Split, the parking lot, Legion Lot and Wilmott Lot, which will be the site of the new bookstore.

“It’s just as important for us to try to cultivate a vibrant community as it is for us to make money on the rents – that’s not the primary goal of the College,” Art said. “We’re trying not to lose money on those spaces, but ultimately, we’re really spending a lot of time and effort trying to develop a street that responds to the needs and desires of the community.”

The College has the ability to be flexible with its prospective tenants, granting short-term tenancies, or pop-up leases, to retailers wary of how their stores will fare on Spring Street. Similarly, the College allows some tenants to begin their leases with a percentage rent rate, where the rent they pay is a percentage of their total profits. Thus, retailers with unsuccessful ventures are not burdened by exorbitant fixed rent fees. Spring Street Market and Café, for instance, began its tenancy with the College with a percentage rent rate. After doing remarkably well, it has been able to switch to a fixed rent payment.

“The main driving focus for our commercial activities on Spring Street is, ‘How do we get Spring Street to be more vibrant and vital?’” Art said. “How do we increase the foot traffic and have a mix of commercial tenants that is appealing to the College community, both students and faculty and staff, but also the town more broadly?”

It is particularly difficult to reanimate Spring Street in this day and age, because being a retailer in a small town is challenging. “Right now, with the different internet offerings, from Amazon to iTunes to sites like Stitch Fix, it’s hard for retailers to compete in a town that has, year-round, about 7000 or 8000 people,” Art said.

Accordingly, Spring Street itself is undergoing a transformation to reflect the needs of the Williamstown population. “The street’s offerings are … evolving from primarily retail to services or experiences, or community spaces,” Art said.

The College has begun to embark on a three-pronged approach to revitalizing Spring Street. First, the College oversaw the reopening of the Log in 2015. The many Williamstown residents and visitors who have visited the Log have generated additional life on the street, which is one of Art and Sheehy’s main goals.

Second in the College’s three-tiered plan is the new bookstore, scheduled to open in 2017. The bookstore, which will be on the corner of Spring and Walden Streets, will have a café that will be open until 10 p.m., responding to longstanding requests from students, faculty and townspeople for later dining options in town. The design of the bookstore will also center on the books themselves.

“We designed the space … with a community space that students can reserve and use for study groups,” Sheehy said. “There’s soft seating, and areas you can get away and be with the books.”

The third and final element of the College’s plan is the construction of the new inn at the bottom of Spring Street, which is tentatively scheduled to open in 2019. Due to required zoning changes, construction will not begin for another several years.

“Hopefully, having an inn on the street that will be a destination in and of itself will help bring more people to the street to support retail,” Art said.

 

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