Planners happy about plans for new, affordable apartments downtown

LACONIA — The Planning Board last night unanimously approved the proposal by the Laconia Area Community Land Trust to construct a three-story, affordable housing apartment building on the lot tucked between lower Union Avenue and the Winnipesaukee River last occupied by the F.W.Webb Company, a wholesale plumbing and heating firm.

Following the vote, Warren Hutchins, chairman of the board, congratulated Linda Harvey, executive director of the LACLT, for pursuing "a dynamic project" that would provide "a real shot in the arm for downtown."

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. Both will be demolished to make way for the project.

Kevin Leonard of Northpoint Engineering, LLC of Pembroke told the board that 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." He said that the ground floor of the building will be at "river level" and the top floor even with Union Avenue.

The building will house 12 one-bedroom units, each 675-square-feet and 20 two-bedroom units of 864-square-feet. 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. A parking lot with an entrance at the corner of Arch Street and River Street will have spaces for 30 vehicles and a smaller lot along Union Avenue will have another 6 spaces. The lower level will be faced with brick and the upper levels with vinyl siding.

Leonard said that a stretch of the downtown riverwalk would be designed and built across the lot as part of the project, with the cost shared between the LACLT and the city.

Harvey estimated the cost of the project at approximately $4 million, but cautioned that this is not a firm figure. She said that the process of assembling the financing package the acquisition of the property and construction of the building is underway but not yet complete.

Although no one spoke against the project, the board raised two issues. First, Leonard explained that the lot included a parking area with a dozen spaces on Union Avenue, which are used by the owner of 100 Union Avenue, which abuts the parcel to the south, under the terms of an easement. He said that the LACLT is seeking to purchase the easement and, if successful, would incorporate this piece of the parcel into the project, but otherwise would not improve the area.

Jerry Mailloux insisted that the LACLT improve the entire property, stressing that the land along Union Avenue is an eyesore. He conceded the parking lot need not be reconstructed but said that the area should be landscaped and lighted to match the remainder of the frontage on Union Avenue. If the LACLT succeeds in purchasing the easement, Mailloux said that the stretch of a retaining wall on that section of the property should be rebuilt to match its counterpart on the rest of the site.

Second, the LACLT asked the board to waive the requirement to install a sidewalk on Arch Street, where it is not practicable. Although the board agreed, Don Richards said that since the project would increase traffic in the neighborhood, the safety of pedestrians, especially children, would be at greater risk. To address the issue the board denied the request for a waiver, but rather than require a sidewalk to be built in a specific location directed the LACLT to set aside funds for the construction of sidewalks in appropriate places in the neighborhood to enhance public safety.

The board granted the LACLT's request to waive impacts which, with an 80-perecent discount for an infill project, amounted to $11,140.