BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. — Plans to redevelop a century-old former garage into an affordable apartment building downtown will proceed, albeit with a slightly different building plan than initially proposed.
The Rockingham Selectboard voted unanimously on Tuesday to apply for a Vermont Community Development Program grant for $292,745 on behalf of the Windsor & Windham Housing Trust, a nonprofit housing provider who seeks to renovate the Bellow Falls Garage on 115 Rockingham St. into a 26-unit apartment building with a street-level retail space and close proximity to the Bellows Falls downtown retail and restaurants.
This grant, which can only be awarded to municipal organizations to support community development projects, is the last piece needed to close a once sizable funding gap in the project, according to Elizabeth Bridgewater and Peter Paggi of the Windsor & Windham Housing Trust. The requested amount is $50,000 greater than the Windsor & Windham Housing Trust previously requested from the selectboard.
When the Windsor & Windham Housing Trust first proposed this project to the selectboard in September 2019, the plan was to construct upon the building’s existing foundation. That plan included 26 apartment units — with five efficiencies, 19 one-bedroom units and two two-bedroom units — a community space on the top level, street-level retail space and an underground parking garage with nine spaces for tenants.
Upon additional cost estimates, however, the Windsor & Windham Housing Trust learned of deficiencies in the building’s foundation, which had deteriorated and cannot support the proposed construction without substantial improvements to the foundation itself. These issues resulted in a $4 million budget gap, according to Bridgewater.
“It was a pretty big surprise to us, having procured two cost estimates,” Bridgewater said. “But when subcontractors came down to take a closer look at the building, some of these issues were revealed.”
The Windsor & Windham Housing Trust significantly modified the original building plan to lower the budget cost, Paggi said. Perhaps most notably, the project will no longer fully renovate the existing building. Instead the building’s front facade will be retained while the rest of the building will be demolished. The project will construct a new structural skeleton behind the facade.
Additionally the new structure walls will be constructed with a lighter wood frame and metal cladding, designed to create a patina as the metal oxidizes to blend into the historical manufacturing aesthetic of the downtown. This less expensive wood frame will substantially reduce previous construction cost estimates, according to Paggi.
The new plan also adds one unit to increase the total units from 26 to 27, which was necessary to ensure the project’s new cash flow target, Bridgewater said. As a result, the proposed community room will be somewhat smaller than the initial plan and be relocated to the building’s fourth floor.
The Windsor & Windham Housing Trust had briefly considered moving the community space to the street level in lieu of a retail space but decided against that after receiving community feedback during public meetings about the proposal.
With the loss of the parking garage the Windsor & Windham Housing Trust has purchased a lot at 88 Canal Street, which will accommodate 12 spaces for tenants, Paggi said. The remaining spaces will be acquired through seeking permits through the municipality or leasing spaces from private lots.
The parking issue was arguably the largest concern expressed by residents at the public hearing. Parking has long been a hot-button issue in downtown Bellows Falls, which hosts a vibrant collection of dining, shopping and entertainment attractions but not the abundance in parking spaces to always satisfy the demand.
Rockingham Selectboard Chair Gaetano Putignano worried that most of the available municipal or private spaces available were a few blocks from 115 Rockingham Street. While these were still a walkable distance, they were not necessarily convenient.
“Winter parking is much different from summer parking,” Putignano said. “I would not rent a building to have to walk that far.”
Some residents debated how significant an issue parking will be for the building’s tenants.
Rockingham resident Barbara Tennes, who moved to Vermont from New York City, noted that many low- to moderate-income families do not own cars and many people now deliberately seek to live where car ownership is unnecessary.
“Some of the value of living in a village is being able to walk everywhere,” Tennes said.
Resident Jennifer Gurley said she found from experience that not having a car in this region was incredibly difficult, even with the available public transit options.
“We are a car-driving state,” Gurley said. “It is a luxury to choose not to have one because it’s tough.”
Gurley said she appreciates this project overall but wants to ensure that all concerns and questions are fully considered.
According to Paggi, seven of the 27 units will serve tenants who earn up to 100-120% of the area’s median income, which would equate to $60,000 per year for a single person or $79,000 for a family of three.
The median household income in Rockingham is approximately $43,600 according to current census data.