Affordable apartment site once viewed as potential waterfront gem

LACONIA — The prospect of the Laconia Community Area Land Trust (LACLT) constructing affordable apartments on a lot tucked between Union Ave. and the Winnipesaukee River once occupied by a wholesale plumbing and heating supply company, F.W. Webb, does not match the vision city officials had for the property when it last changed hands in 2007. Then, the property was seen as a great location for a classy, waterfront, mixed-use development that would be a shot in the arm for the city's downtown.
Linda Harvey, executive director of the LACLT, said yesterday that although plans have been submitted to the Planning Department, the trust is still in the process of performing due diligence on the property and negotiating a purchase and sales agreement. She anticipates presenting a proposal to the Planning Board in August.
The boundaries of the 1.87-acre parcel describe a triangle, with 685 feet of frontage on the river — 598 feet above Avery Dam — representing its longest side and bordered on the other two sides by Arch Street and Union Avenue. However, its frontage on Arch Street is limited by a 0.34-acre lot that runs more than half the length of the street from its intersection with Union Avenue owned by Combined Investments, LLC of Milton, Massachusetts, which houses two apartment buildings. The footbridge below the dam links the lot to the Rotary Park, Belknap Mill, One Mill Plaza and City Hall.
There are two buildings on the site, the original mill of 18,597-square-feet, built around 1850 at the river's edge, and a newer outbuilding of 5,154-square-feet near the corner of Arch Street and River Street.
The property is is the city's Downtown Riverfront District, created "to provide opportunities, incentives and requirements to acknowledge and respect the Winnipesaukee River" and described by the zoning ordinance as "a focal point in the city's history and heritage," which should be "a critical factor in any redevelopment within the district."
The Master Plan, adopted in 2007, lists the riverfront among the city's prime assets and includes among its goals the economic development of the waterfront among its goals.
That same year F.W. Webb constructed a new facility in the Lakes Business Park and the property was purchased by Cecil and Deborah Baldwin of Tuscon, Arizona, who anticipated rehabilitating the mill to match those across the river. They were intrigued with a conceptual design for the site prepared the year before following a charette hosted by Laconia Main Street.
The plan featured the mill, restored to offer space for a restaurant and shops on the lower level and condominium units above, as a destination along a riverwalk between the Main Street and Church Street bridges. The smaller building would be used for retail or office space, though some suggested that it be demolished and replaced with a new structure. The project was conceived in conjunction with the riverwalk. An earlier design showed a boardwalk between footbridge and Arch Street passing an outdoor dining terrace at the restored mill.
But, since then the property has sat empty and untouched. Harvey said that Planning Director Shanna Saunders asked her if the LACLT would have any interest in redeveloping the site. Saunders said that she probably included it among several properties that have lain fallow for years and is "thrilled to see the LACLT redeveloping it." She said that the trust builds to high standards as well as maintains its properties and manages its tenants. She referred to Mill View, the LACLT's residential complex across Union Avenue, as a significant asset to the neighborhood.
Saunders acknowledged that an apartment building does not conform to the original vision for the site, but said that market forces failed to lead to the redevelopment of the property. "It simply isn't happening," she said, "and we have to move on. That building has sat there deteriorating since before I started work here nearly 10 years ago."
The LACLT plans to demolish both existing structures on the lot and replace them with a new building will consist of two wings, paralleling Union Avenue and Arch Street and joined in the middle to form a "V." The building will house 12 one-bedroom units, each 675-square-feet and 20 two-bedroom units of 864-square-feet. A parking lot with an entrance at the corner of Arch Street and River Street will have spaces for 30 vehicles and two smaller lots along Union Avenue will have another 18 spaces. The lower level will be faced with brick and the upper levels with vinyl siding. The riverfront will be landscaped and include walkways designed to accommodate the downtown riverwalk, which the city plans to construct along both banks of the river.
Like all the projects undertaken by the LACLT, the units will be offered at affordable rents and property taxes will be paid on the apartment building.
David Stamps, who contributed to the original conceptual plan for the property, enthusiastically welcomed the LACLT's proposal. "I'm not at all disappointed," he said. "This area needs affordable housing and I am a big supporter of the LACLT. The market determined that the property could not be developed as we envisioned," he continued. "This is an excellent alternative."
But, Harry Bean of Gilford, who owns 76 rental units in the neighborhood, believes that the LACLT, which finances its projects with a mix of grants and low-interest loans, represents unfair competition to private landlords. He said that his two-bedroom units with heat and hot water rent for $802 a month, just as they did 30 years ago. Meanwhile, property taxes, insurance coverage and fuel costs have risen significantly. He claims that with such slender margins, private landlords cannot afford to invest in the improving their properties.
Moreover, Bean doubts that the city lacks a sufficient inventory of affordable units. "There is absolutely no demand for more affordable housing," he said, estimating that between empty units and delinquent tenants vacancy rates stand near 10 percent. Instead, he said adding to the supply decreases the demand, which leads to either lower rents or more vacancies.
Adding to the stock of affordable units, Bean believes, will simply attract more low-income residents. "Build it and they will come," he remarked. "Condos wouldn't be bad thing there. A restaurant with retail shops would be better."
Bean said that he has expressed his misgivings about the proposed apartment project to Mayor Mike Seymour as well as City Councilors Brenda Baer (Ward 4) and Armand Bolduc (Ward 6).