A closer look: Williams Inn approval

Samuel Wolf

The Williams Inn will be completed this summer after lengthy collaboration between College officials and town representatives. SABRINE BRISMEUR/PHOTO EDITOR

The construction of the new Williams Inn, which Senior Project Manager Michael Wood says will be complete this summer, has involved an unprecedented level of cooperation and dialogue between College officials and Williamstown representatives. The proposed inn will have 64 rooms, as opposed to 133 in the original, and it is fully financed and managed by the College at the cost of $35.6 million from the endowment. According to Jim Kolesar ’72, the College’s assistant to the president for community and government affairs, the project is the result of a lengthy bureaucratic approval process that has ultimately garnered positive reactions from most townspeople. “For being in the community, as opposed to on campus, it is the biggest [College construction effort],” Kolesar said. Located at Denison Park on a legally protected wetlands area and at the intersection of numerous business interests, the new inn has generated controversy and has produced a compromise. 

The proposal of the inn came at the heels of a consistent demand from townspeople for more business in Williamstown, Kolesar said. In January 2013, the College made public its consideration of building a high-end hotel in town. At the time, the preexisting Williams Inn, which sits on College property that had been leased to the inn’s owners, had become increasingly unprofitable. Director of the Environmental Studies Program Henry Art, who also serves on and formerly chaired the Williamstown Conservation Commission, which was involved in deliberations over the new inn, added that the original Williams Inn is unnecessarily large. “It is just too big for the demand,” he said. “Three weekends a year, it’s going to be full, and those are graduation, reunion and Columbus Day weekend.”

Ultimately, as the inn’s profitability declined, the College decided to purchase its sizeable debt, giving the College increased leverage to reshape the inn in its interests, paving the way for the construction of a new hotel.

One of the earliest concerns in constructing a new inn was its location. Proposals ranged from the end of Spring Street, along Route 2, to Denison Park, which was ultimately selected by a committee that was formed to evaluate potential locations. This committee included neighbors, “merchants on Spring Street and people in the hospitality industry,” said Art, who added that the committee met “fairly regularly.” Kolesar, in his role as liaison between College and town, chaired this committee. 

From the College’s perspective, putting the inn near Denison Park was always preferable for both environmental and aesthetic reasons. For Williamstown Director of Community Development Andrew Groff, the necessary permitting was much more straightforward at the Denison Park location, which also had clearer environmental advantages. Art concurred, adding that storm-water management issues would make it exceptionally difficult to have the inn near the intersection of Spring Street and Route 2. “That’s a location that’s receiving a disproportionate amount of water because all of the roof drainage from the Morley Science Center,” he said. “Putting a hotel on top of that really didn’t make a lot of ecological sense.”

According to Kolesar, the majority of interested parties favored this reasoning, but a minority continued to believe that the top of Spring Street would be preferable, primarily for reasons relating to prominence. One concern, according to Groff, was based on distance. “There was a concern that if it was set too far back, where it was now, it wouldn’t have the benefit of walkability,” he said.

The College countered this, however, with a concerted pitch to community members. For instance, in a March 15, 2016, Williams Planning Board meeting, Rita-Coppola Wallace, the College’s executive director of design and construction, stated that the College ultimately selected its location based on five criteria: “traffic, environment, program, geotechnical and engineering,” all of which were found suitable at a Denwison Park location. 

The location at the bottom of Spring Street presented problems, however, since that area had been previously designated as residential and had to be rezoned as commercial. This required the approval of the Town’s Planning Board, which began deliberations in October 2014. In an Oct. 14 meeting before the Planning Board, the College centered its pitch around community benefits. The College brought in Stefanie Greenfield of Cambridge Seven Architects, who – according to Town Minutes – said that the Inn would “encourage activity on Spring Street,” “create an arrival experience,” “preserve municipal parking,” “improve the stewardship of the landscape” and “foster a welcoming community for both the Town and College.” During that meeting, one community member raised the concern of the parking lot being over-exhausted; another brought up potential encroachment upon the nearby Christmas Brook, to which Kolesar referenced other ongoing restoration and construction efforts. With these assurances, the proposal garnered a unanimous Planning Board approval, followed by the Zoning Board of Appeals’ unanimous approval.  

Several local businesses, however, were not persuaded by the College’s initial pitch, citing concerns with regards to traffic flow, though no businesses or townspeople offered comment to the  Record. “Most people saw the sense of it, that we would bring life to the street,” Kolesar said. More concretely, however, Kolesar found that owners of smaller local inns and hostels worried that the new Williams Inn would diminish their potential for business – a concern that he found baseless because of the new inn’s relatively smaller size.

These concerns prompted Kolesar to begin holding frequent meetings with and engage in outreach toward local business groups in an attempt to win them over. Outreach included an event on WilliNet with Coppola-Wallace and numerous forums that used College resources and gradually won over business interests, according to Groff. “The big concerns regarding preventing encroachment of the business district from moving up the hill, protecting the top of the Denison Park area, and preventing any encroachment toward the knolls, were adequately addressed during that process,” he said. 

Fred Puddester, the College’s treasurer and vice president for finance and administration, emphasized current business support for the project. “Based on conversations we had with all the merchants on Spring Street, they are supportive of the inn,” he said. 

From an environmental perspective as well, the buy-in process was protracted. In addition to citing noise, reduction of property value and traffic as relevant community concerns, Art brought up storm-water management issues and the Inn’s unideal placement near wetlands protected by state law as cause for concern among the Williamstown Conservation Commission. Indeed, throughout proposal, planning and construction, the building of a new culvert and the renovation of a parking lot proved pivotal in ushering in community and environmental support. “There’s multiple separate projects going on here,” Groff said. “The parking lot is a separate project from the culvert [and] from the inn, but they are all interconnected. None of them are really possible without the other one.”

For decades, Williamstown has suffered frequent flooding as a result of Christmas Brook being passed through a small pipe, which Art estimated as three feet in diameter, often overflowing onto Latham Street. This changed when the College constructed a new culvert last year. This six-foot-high culvert, buried 15 feet below the ground, was completed in fall 2018. That construction was partially spurred by the proposed Williams Inn. “It was part of the grand bargain to minimize the flooding in that part of town,” Art said, adding that previous College construction projects had exacerbated water needs in the area. “The College was creating this issue, and it was their responsibility to fix it.” 

“The culvert had to be fixed,” Groff said. “To continue to put more development in the area when it had a flooding problem would have been detrimental to the members of the community that are impacted by the flooding… That’s a Williams project. The town did not have the resources to fix that, nor did we have the ability to, because we had shared ownership of that culvert.”

A new water detention center under the new parking lot, which cost the College 21 million dollars, will also assist in avoiding large amounts of runoff. “There’s a large tank in the new parking lot, and that’s connected to the new pipes, and all of that goes into the Green River,” said Lauren Stevens, the current chair of the Williamstown Conservation Commission, which required extensive environmental assurances before approving the Williams Inn project. 

For the town, as well, the College’s ability to improve local infrastructure significantly helped it move the construction project forward. “I wouldn’t say that a private developer couldn’t have built the inn as it is today,” Groff said. “But the fact that all these things are interconnected because it’s part of the campus made it much more complex.”

The Wetlands and Rivers Protection Act in Massachusetts also proved  to be a hurdle. According to the act, any project must be at least 100 feet away from any bordering vegetative wetlands, and 200 feet away from a river. “Part of that site had a stream that comes along in the back of Doughty house empties into Christmas Brook,” Art said. The College had previously had to deal with these regulations and appear before the Conservation Commission seeking approval, according to Art. “The question is, can you construct that building on that site and have minimal impacts in terms of drainage?” he asked. 

“That site and that project have gotten as close to environmental scrutiny as any project, ever, in Williamstown,” Stevens added. To oversee the project, the Conservation Commission hired engineer David Nynan to supervise construction at the College’s expense. In addition, the commission examined the pre-construction landscape. “We did multiple site visits to look at where the wetlands are marked out, where the research area is where we have responsibility as a conservation commission,” Stevens said. “We came back and then the engineers made a presentation.” Ultimately, over the course of two meetings on August 10, 2017, and Sept. 21, 2017, the committee approved the project unanimously, citing the improved drainage systems that it would bring and the previously degraded state of the building site. “For the bulk of the site, it was an area where Williams College had stored equipment, leaving some residue of petroleum products,” Stevens said. “The site is now being put to a more positive and beneficial use.”

“To say that it sailed through the Conservation Commission is probably an overstatement because it was a very long process, very carefully negotiated back and forth,” Art noted, “but it was very amicable.” This approval, however, was predicated on the commission’s ability to visit the site at any point they wished, and it can be withdrawn. 

The Conservation Commission’s decision was made easier by a separate wetlands restoration project that the College concurrently engaged in to make the Inn’s approval more appealing. “I have, for the last 40 years, thought Christmas Brook would be the wonderful amenity for the town and the College to have restored back to a functioning native wetland system,” Art said. For decades, the College has shown reluctance to put resources into such a non-emergency task, but over the past few years, the College invested significant resources into doing exactly that. “The delightful part of this inn project was the quid pro quo: [Through] building the inn, there could be the restoration of those wetlands, the removal of all of those invasive exotics,” he added. “They had done a fantastic job, two summers ago, of going in and removing all of those [invasive species].” The College also remedied some of its own prior degradation in the area, including gasoline, fertilizers and old vehicles that had been left by the brook in violation of the Rivers and Wetlands Act. “From an environmental point of view, it’s a plus,” Stevens added of the various projects surrounding the inn. “Any area that’s going to be developed, there’s going to be losses, but this seems to be on balance a positive.”

As of April, this long process seems to be approaching a culmination. Kolesar acknowledged that recent construction has weighed on the community. “Construction weariness certainly exists,” he said. For the College, the Inn’s completion represents a sizeable monetary, infrastructure and communications victory, through a successful navigation of countless residential, commercial and environmental interests, according to Kolesar. Indeed, notable town figures are nearly unanimously grateful for the College’s efforts, many of which simply remedied past wrongs on the College’s part. “Thank goodness we have such an institution that can make these investments in our downtown,” Groff said. “I think the downtown is set to thrive now because of that infrastructure.”