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Brooks House owner, consultants show first ideas

Chase hopes renovation of fire-ravaged historic block will begin in 2012

BRATTLEBORO—After the Brooks House was gutted by a five-alarm fire in April, one of the first questions asked by the community was, “Now what?”

The fire, which was caused by a staple that punctured an electrical cable, displaced 60 residents and 10 businesses, and rendered the downtown landmark a charred shell of its former self.

Owner Jonathan Chase immediately pledged to rebuild, and one sign that he wants to make good on that pledge came last week, when Chase, consulting and design firm Stevens & Associates, and Tom Appel of New England Management Co. unveiled preliminary plans for the 1871 building.

The project team anticipates funding for the approximately $12 million rebuilding to flow from multiple sources, such as historic preservation and new market tax credits.

“We have the opportunity to do this right, and make the building everything it can be,” Chase said in a press release.

Chase’s family has owned the Brooks House since the 1970s. According to preliminary plans, the Brooks House would remain a mixed-use building with retail, office, and living space.

Designs from Stevens & Associates include 41 apartments, office space, nine retail spaces, three restaurants, a “fully rehabilitated bar downstairs” (the former Mole’s Eye), handicapped accessibility, and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The apartments, 18 fewer than pre-fire because Chase plans to increase their size, will fall into three categories: “fair market,” “high-end” with loft space in the penthouse, and artists’ studios with living and working areas, complete with “slop sinks.”

Although Chase has big plans for the apartments, he told The Commons in July that he doesn’t anticipate rents “catapulting.”

“I don’t think the rents will go up,” he said, because planned energy efficiencies will make the building less expensive to operate.

Chase plans to reopen the building’s original lobby, where Adagio Trattoria stood, to serve as the building’s main entryway and allow access to the apartments, offices, and an indoor mall connecting the retail spaces.

According to Allyson Wendt, Stevens & Associates marketing director, the project team hopes to preserve, or restore, the historical features of the original Brooks House.

Features on the wish list include rehabilitating the storefronts’ facades and replicating the hotel’s two-story wrought-iron porch.

The building’s ballroom, previously cut into small working spaces, would return to a large, open area for use as a co-working space for local entrepreneurs, Stevens & Associates announced in a press release.

The co-working area would provide sole business owners an alternative to the coffee shop, said Wendt.

“It’s a great space,” she said.

Preservation and modernization

The Brooks House, post-fire, straddles the line. It’s a historical building worthy of preservation, but it is also a building that requires updates to meet modern codes and standards.

According to Wendt, to qualify for historical tax credits, the rehabilitation will have to leave Brooks with certain historical aesthetics.

The tax program tends to care more about the building’s facade — no aluminum windows are allowed, for example — but it allows more flexibility inside the building, she said.

Simultaneously, said Wendt, Chase wants to make the building energy-efficient and meet modern building-code standards, which will require changing systems like the electrical, sprinkler, heating, and ventilation.

Wendt said the project team wants, however, to save as much of the historical “fabric of the building” as possible, such as the tin ceilings.

Wendt said the energy-efficient changes and upgrades, like improved ventilation, will help the building overall.

The changes “will make [Brooks] a much healthier building,” she said. “With old buildings you get stuff, and we have the option to start fresh.”

The conceptual design, according to the press release, also features a pedestrian mall.

The mall would allow people to enter the building’s lobby or retail spaces, walk from shop to shop, and end up in the Harmony Lot.

“The Harmony Marketplace, as we’re calling it, would provide more green space for downtown,” said Bob Stevens, principal of Stevens & Associates. “It would also provide a pedestrian-friendly area that would support the businesses around Harmony Lot, and it would give Brooks House residents an important amenity.”

Chase, who owns a portion of the land used by the parking lot and the tunnel cutting through to High Street, has plans for the back of the building.

“The preliminary plan for the lot includes closing the tunnel to vehicular traffic, extending landscaping between the Brooks House and the one-story building on the other side of the parking lot [formerly Frankie’s Pizzeria], and providing outdoor seating for town residents and the restaurant located in the Brooks House,” wrote Stevens & Associates in a press release.

The town pays Chase a fee for keeping the tunnel open to vehicular traffic and for the use of his property as a public parking lot. Wendt said negotiations regarding the tunnel between Chase and the town have to occur before the marketplace could become a reality.

But, she added, everyone she has mentioned the potential pedestrian area and green space to, has told her the idea “is exciting.”

According to Stevens, the potential marketplace would not take any public parking spaces.

Chase hopes to start rebuilding in 2012. He has said he anticipates the project taking at least two years to complete.

Those working with Chase on the Brooks House project’s feasibility study include Stevens & Associates, with architect Sabine Dickel and consultant Denny Frehsee.

Appel is also involved with developing funding sources and providing project management services.

Artist Steven Donovan, hired by the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and Building a Better Brattleboro, is painting murals on the windows of the empty storefronts.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #128 (Wednesday, November 23, 2011).

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