Railroad Street microlofts get green light from Zoning Board

Railroad Street microlofts get green light from Zoning Board

A rendering shows the proposed exterior view of the development planned for the building at 43 Railroad St. in Woonsocket.

WOONSOCKET – A downtown building that’s been vacant for at least a decade is on its way to becoming home to downsizers and young professionals after the Woonsocket Zoning Board of Review gave its unanimous support to the project this week.

John Messier and Leszek Przybylko plan to turn 43 Railroad St., the rundown former mill next to Ciro’s Tavern, into 20 studio and one-bedroom apartments under a new law that allows developers to create “microlofts” measuring smaller than 550 square feet. It’s the second project the pair is taking on this year after completing a full rehab of 122 North Main St., the former tenement now home to Lop’s Brewing.

On Monday, attorney Michael Marcello told board members the team plans to create 18 microlofts and two standard units in the currently 19,000-square-foot building. The plans call for serious renovation work, including knocking out a floor and adding a level to make a three-story building into five stories, but the developers are confident they can take on the $2.1 million project. The plans also include two commercial spaces for to-be-decided tenants and a gym and storage space in the basement.

Ashley Sweet, an engineering consultant hired by the developers, told board members the project fits with the city’s long-term goal of repurposing old mill buildings. The area, she said, has struggled to find investment under its current zoning requirements, with very few of the downtown buildings meeting the standard requirements for a mixed commercial and residential district. She also said microlofts are becoming an increasingly popular housing option in other Rhode Island cities.

“It’s a fairly new construction in this area, and it’s presenting itself as a fairly desirable unit for young professionals and older (renters) looking to downsize,” she said.

Sweet also pointed out the project’s potential for a struggling Main Street. With a new commuter rail planned for the train station next door and a residential project bringing potential shoppers to the area, she said, the changes could spur a renewal of the former commercial center.

“You need to actually have people live in the center, not just commercial businesses,” she said.

It’s not the first time developers have targeted the structure for residential use. Developer Dan Peloquin received approval for a similar project in 2005, but the financial crisis of 2008 hit and the project never went through. At the time, Michael and Britt Balint, who live in a renovated historic property next door, were against the project on the basis a planned addition might overshadow their building. They’ve since changed their minds, as they explained to board members on Monday night.

“In retrospect, I wish the plans would have gone ahead,” said Michael. “The property, in my eyes, has become a blight.”

Balint explained how the building deteriorated over the years, attracting teenagers and presenting a potential fire hazard from discarded cigarette butts. Assuming the renovations comply with the historic look of the area, he said, he and his wife fully support the project.

The project also drew comments from neighbors and city residents who expressed concerns about parking and traffic but overall said it would be good for the area. Evelyn Giles, a Robinson Street resident who previously worked in the building, pointed out the project may require significant environmental remediation to clean up leakage from old machinery. She also raised concerns about congestion in the surrounding neighborhood, where her daughter lives, but acknowledged the project has the potential to clean up an otherwise blighted area.

“If things work out alright, that’ll be a plus for the city of Woonsocket,” she said.

In response to concerns about parking, Marcello explained the lot has 43 spaces in back of the building, separate from the James Street area in front of the building that becomes crowded on weekend nights.

The board voted unanimously to approve the project, with member Steve Laramee abstaining. The project will now move to the Planning Department for further review. Messier previously told The Breeze he hopes to begin construction as soon as he receives city approval and complete the project within a year.