A concept drawing of where the museum would now be located; Heritage State Park is to the left. The large parking lot to the right is not likely to happen.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The proposed private for-profit model railroad museum is negotiating with the city to purchase the old Sons of Italy parcel for the project.
"From our perspective it solves a number of problems," Ben Sosne, the museum's senior project manager and legal adviser, told the Redevelopment Authority on Tuesday, adding "We have no intention of abandoning Heritage Park."
Thomas Kren's Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum was planned to go into the long Building 4 at Western Gateway Heritage State Park. But since the initial press conference announcing the project nearly 15 months ago, the concept has grown beyond the tight confines of the existing historic park Sosne and Andre Heller, project manager, updated the board.
"When we first started this project, the idea at the press conference was ... you really revitalize the entire Heritage State Park. You make use of the six buildings in the state park, you really make an experience where people can go," Sosne said.
That came to include a "museum of time," cafe, retail and a boutique distillery to start. But the complexity of the model museum itself began to require far more latitude in terms of space than the current Department of Conservation and Recreation museum could handle.
"The last year we've been working on how we're going to make this a reality both in terms of the exhibit and how we're going to make this work financially, how we're going to pull this off," Sosne said. "As we dug a little bit deeper, each of these projects expanded."
An addition had been planned to the long Hoosac Tunnel museum to handle the 700-foot-long project that would have taken it out to Building 6 at the far end of the park.
But as the private organization has been developing how the museum would operate, it became apparent that a simple addition wouldn't cut it.
The model railroads and architectural elements will sit up on a raised surface that will circle the interior walls of the building so visitors can easily see the 100 or so trains operating over the miles of track and the 1:48 scale architectural elements. Experiments with working models in Krens' basement revealed how complicated the electrical system under the tables would be, and the need to be able to access them.
Sosne said there was discussion of digging a sub-basement but with the original building on stilts, it would require pulling up the floors in the historic building and then trying to match the floors with the new addition.
The concept of an immersive experience, like a planetarium, calls for projection screens around the interior to display the passing of time, clouds and birds. That would need room around the entire installation for projectors and maintenance.
And then the difficulties in producing and moving large architectural elements became apparent with the mockup of the Empire State Building. Done in blue foam core board, the 34-foot-tall display was created in a room at the Greylock Works, then disassembled to be transported to first Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art for reassembly and then taken apart again to move into the Mohawk Theater.
"We realized we needed an onsite work space ... if we're going to do 100, 200 buildings, where are we going to be building?" Sosne said. "Then we realized we need a subbasement. ...
"The laundry list started to add up."
The museum actually looked into buying up property above the massive retaining wall so that the wall could be moved. The expense, problems inherent in moving the wall and the significant renovations needed for Building 4 — which would have to go through both the local and state historical commissions — were untenable.
Plus, the park's new pavers would likely not hold up to the massive equipment that would have to come in.
"The conclusion was, that to really make this EMRCA Museum the experience that we're hoping for, to complement it with the Museum of Time, to complement it with the distillery, and the retail and the cafe stuff, to round out this feel of a real destination," Sosne said. "The best solution was not to buy up old houses on a hill and knock down a 50-foot retaining wall but to move it across the river to the Sons of Italy site and build from scratch."
The museum has no intention of abandoning Heritage State Park, he said, but rather to expand it by moving the model railroad museum south.
Building 4 would "be absolutely perfect" for the Museum of Time to host nearly 100 large clocks, some 6 feet tall, that played a role in developing train schedules, Sosne said. And the group is working with the Hoosic River Revival to ensure the planned riverwalk is incorporated into the final design as well as pedestrian access across the railroad tracks, currently in concept as an underpass.
New building plans shown to the Redevelopment Authority include a 6-foot wide utility corridor for access to the projectors and screens and for moving buildings around; a 7,500 square foot workshop; a subbasement under the railroad display platforms and a second-floor viewing gallery inspired by the Empire State Building's time in a Mass MoCA two-story corridor.
Though it was on the agenda, the board did not take up the "option to purchase" as Mayor Richard Alcombright said the proposal was not ready. He anticipated scheduling another meeting for the board to discuss it in executive session.
The board did, however, authorize the mayor to hire attorney Michael MacDonald to represent the Redevelopment Authority in the talks and detail any legal limitations attached to the state park. MacDonald has been a practicing attorney for more than 30 years and was a partner in then Cain Hibbard before becoming executive vice president and general counsel for Petricca Industries.
"I grew up in construction ... and my practice tended to be in construction, real estate development and real estate finance areas," MacDonald said. He also served on a number of commissions and boards, including Downtown Pittsfield Inc. and the Colonial Theatre restoration, where he was involved with its land acquisition and tax credits. "[I] have sort of developed this specialty in tax credits and nontraditional forms of financing."
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