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Sale of Clarke Schools campus in Northampton on track now that Opal Real Estate has won historic tax credits

Clarke officials announced 16 months ago they had reached an agreement to sell most of the 11-acre campus off Round Hill Road to the Opal Real Estate Group. Opal intends to convert about half of the buildings on the campus into luxury apartments and commercial, medical and office space.

Before the deal could go through, however, Opal needed approval of federal and historic tax credits. The company’s application to the National Park Service for federal credits was approved last fall, but the state Historical Commission asked Opal to submit more details about its plans for windows, roofs and heating and cooling system improvements to the campus’s historic structures. The commission approved those updated plans last week.

“This was the last hurdle to the closing,” said Demetrios Panteleakis, a managing partner of Opal.

Bill Corwin, president of Clarke Schools, was traveling Monday, but issued a statement last week that the sale can proceed, with a closing expected this spring.

“The approval from the Historic Commission means that Opal will need to maintain the look of the buildings and the property, which we are obviously pleased about.” Corwin said.

Historic tax credits are designed to help developers offset the construction costs to rehabilitate and reuse historic buildings. The combined credits will mean a reimbursement of between $2 million and $3 million, Panteleakis said.

Opal expects to spend about $10 million to renovate the campus. Panteleakis said that figure does not include the cost to buy the site from Clarke, which he declined to reveal until the deal closes.

Opal intends to spend the next few months shaping final designs before the project goes to bid and construction begins in the fall. The project is expected to be completed in the fall of 2014, Panteleakis said.

In the short term, the company plans to move ahead in the next few weeks with traffic improvements on Round Hill Road through the campus and off-site improvements along neighboring Elm Street.

“The day after the closing, we plan to go straight to the traffic mitigation,” Panteleakis said.

Plans call for two speed humps to be constructed on both ends of Round Hill Road to cut down on speeds through the Clarke campus, and possibly a third speed hump in the middle, said Carolyn Misch, senior land use planner with the city.

Other improvements include construction of two “highly visible” crosswalks on Round Hill, replacing existing crosswalks that are hard to see. The company will add granite curbing on both sides of the street in front of the campus.

Off-site improvements include installation of “rapid-flash” pedestrian beacons, similar to one on Conz Street, at Elm Street and Henshaw Avenue across from Smith College and in front of Northampton High School in front of Child’s Park. The beacons will include passive detection that will flash when someone approaches the crosswalk, whether or not they push the button, Misch said.

Opal has also agreed to improve signs for the area and construct a crosswalk on Prospect Street.

Site plan unchanged

As for campus renovation, Panteleakis said the site plan approved by the Planning Board has not changed. The development, to be called Historic Round Hill Summit, calls for four buildings on the west side of the campus to house professional and medical office tenants. Those buildings are Gawith, Adams, Coolidge and Skinner.

Four other buildings on the west campus will remain as they are, including the Galbraith Physical Education Center.

On the east campus, Opal will convert Hubbard and Rogers halls into 38 luxury apartment units. Panteleakis said most of the work will take place in these halls, though it will be interior work with little visibility from the street.

Opal is bound by a historic preservation restriction to keep the exterior look of the buildings intact, aside from minor alterations that are part of ordinary maintenance and repair.

“These buildings are pristine from the outside and they’re in pretty good shape inside,” Panteleakis said.

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