WOONSOCKET – A recent surge in housing proposals could see several hundred units of new housing coming to downtown Woonsocket over the next few years.
The latest project, pitched by a pair of Franklin, Mass.-based developers, would see the Hospital Trust Building converted to 80 to 100 microloft apartments with commercial space on the ground floor. Matthew Kelly and Marc Fantasia of Red Brick Companies described their plan to the City Council during a meeting last Wednesday, Sept. 1.
According to Kelly and Fantasia, that plan would require substantial support from both the city and state in the form of tax incentives and a parking arrangement but would result in an ambitious project transforming one of the area’s most dilapidated commercial buildings into a bustling apartment complex. Built in 1929, the structure was formerly home to the Rhode Island Hospital Trust bank but in recent years has begun to literally crumble away, shedding pieces of façade onto the sidewalk below.
“Our goal is just to make sure that we start working with the city now to get that fixed until realistically, in another year and a half, the whole front falls off,” Kelly told members of the City Council.
By filling in a mezzanine level and adding two floors to the top of the structure, Kelly and Fantasia said they anticipate building out 80 to 100 microunits, a housing type defined by the city zoning code as a dwelling unit between 325 and 550 square feet. Businesses on the ground floor would be targeted to bring in tenants and could include a gym, coffee shop or salon.
Though small in size, Fantasia said the units would be attractive to commuters priced out of the housing markets of nearby communities.
“Woonsocket is a short drive to Worcester. Woonsocket is a short drive to Providence,” he said.
The same strategy was recently employed by local developers John Messier and Leszek Przybylko in their recent projects on North Main Street and Railroad Street. Messier and Przybylko, who also plan to redevelop the former CYO Center on Federal Street, have used a mix of micro- and traditional-sized units along with commercial space to create what they hope will be attractive living spaces for young professionals looking for an alternative to buying. Messier told The Breeze last week they’re already seeing interest in their ongoing project on Railroad Street, with rents starting around $1,200.
“We’ve got it listed with our property manager, and we’re taking applications,” he said. “We’re not really worried about renting it.”
Between the three buildings, Messier and Przybylko expect to complete between 65 and 70 rental units in the downtown area. And while the Hospital Trust proposal offers a potential competitor for future tenants’ leases, Messier said he’s not concerned about the competition. Instead, he said, the new proposal is likely to drive up property values throughout the neighborhood.
“I look at it and say to myself, I’ve got a person who lives on Railroad and he’s looking out the window, would he rather see that dilapidated mess or would he rather see a vibrant building that’s been restored?” he said.
Earlier this year, city officials heard another major development proposal from Brisa Development, a New York-based group that expects to build 60 residential units in the former Bernon Mills. On the other side of the river, NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley is getting ready to break ground on the redevelopment of three historic mill buildings that are expected to house 70 low-income apartments off Market Square.
Combined, the projects could see close to 300 new housing units developed in or near downtown Woonsocket over the span of a few years. It’s a trend Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt said comes about after years of effort on the part of city officials trying to attract investment to the Main Street area.
“I think it’s a testament to the fact that there are residents here and outside of our city who would look to come to move to Woonsocket,” she told The Breeze.
Baldelli-Hunt estimated the proposed projects could bring a combined $50 million to $70 million of investment to the downtown area. In the case of the Hospital Trust building, a portion of that investment would go toward remediating a structure that has seen little in the way of basic maintenance.
“I think it’s encouraging, and I think we need to be realistic,” she said. “This property has basically been neglected for a very long period of time. It has fallen into a state of — I don’t want to say disrepair, but the investment is significant, and the longer it stays vacant the more costly it will be.”
Baldelli-Hunt said the city has worked with the building’s current owner, Duarte Carreiro, over the years, but the high level of work required inside the building has become cost-prohibitive. In the event of a demolition, she warned the council, those costs could be shifted onto someone other than the owner.
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Due to its location at the heart of Main Street, the property also comes with parking challenges. In addition to a tax stabilization agreement, Fantasia said they would need the city’s support in the use of several nearby municipal parking lots for tenants. He pointed to two adjacent lots on Main Street and a third on High Street that are primarily used by city employees during the day.
“The question is, can we come up with some sort of arrangement to utilize the spots overnight? That would give us the parking that we need,” he said.
Several members of the City Council expressed concerns about the arrangement, including how the city would enforce having tenants move their vehicles during the day. Kelly said the group would be open to a permitting system that, in addition to enforcing the parking arrangement, could serve as a revenue generator for the city through the use of parking tickets.
If approved, the project would likely take about three years to complete, according to Baldelli-Hunt.
“It’s like this puzzle, and we’re putting all the pieces of the puzzle together. Eventually, you begin to see the picture that’s evolving,” she said.