Originally Posted by The Globe
Apartments, condos are once again appearing above main street stores
By Ron DePasquale, Globe Correspondent | January 21, 2007
It's the classic New England main street look: small businesses, retail shops at street level, with apartments above. And in many places in the region, it's illegal.
But "top of shop" housing, as it is sometimes called, is going legit. Several communities in Massachusetts have loosened zoning rules to allow more housing in their downtowns.
Long-vacant upper stories are being dusted off for residents in old downtowns in Woburn, Framingham, and New Bedford. New mixed-use developments are also being promoted as a way for Cape Cod communities to preserve dwindling open space, and to give single-story buildings in village centers a makeover.
"It brings more life downtown. We have people living and shopping downtown, and they bring another set of eyes downtown," said Don Borchelt , director of the Woburn Redevelopment Authority.
Property owners are rediscovering that putting apartments above their commercial space makes good business sense. "It creates an economic return for upper floors that were otherwise dead space," Borchelt said, "because there's a very weak market for commercial space over the first floor."
It might sound odd that downtown apartments are unusual enough that a spate of new ones constitutes a comeback. But zoning changes made long ago separated communities into single-use sections -- downtowns for commercial only, more outlying districts solely for residential --and generally frowned on mixing the two.
The car was also a culprit in the change. Zoning changes also made more room for parking; once walkable and filled with small homes, downtowns were redesigned for driving and parking, and not living, so people who spent money in the shops under their apartments moved away.
"To have uniformly residential or commercial areas is not natural," said Alex Marthews , executive director of the Waltham Alliance to Create Housing, which has seven affordable apartments above its Moody Street office downtown. "It followed planning theory, rather than the practical way people actually lived and worked, so now you have the enormous negative effects of sprawl. But in the last 10 to 15 years, this type of development has been coming back."
It's all part of the "smart-growth" theory sweeping the planning and development communities, in which new housing and commercial or office space are combined in mixed-use projects near mass transit, such as at suburban downtown commuter rail stations.
But there is also nostalgia at work: The restoration of downtown to the days before malls and office centers moved the commercial center to outlying highways.
"It will look the way it did back in 1900," said Joel Irving of the Kendall building in downtown Framingham, which was once threatened with demolition but is now being renovated. The building's upper floors, long-abandoned, were once used for a hotel and are being renovated into 25 apartments and condos, while concrete additions to the lower fa?ade will be stripped away to reveal original brick work. Irving represents Kendall owner Maurice Khawam .
Spreading this movement may be difficult. Adding more downtown housing often stirs worries about congestion and crime. Local officials and neighborhood groups can intimidate owners of small commercial properties or lead to zoning changes being voted down.
Moreover, fixing or adding upper floors can be expensive, and even impractical if the original structure can't support more weight. Another factor: Residential tenants can be a lot more work for landlords than office tenants.
But the payoff, to communities at least, is clear, said Woburn's Borchelt. Neglected Victorian and Art Deco buildings in that city's downtown had upper floors shaved off decades ago, he said. After Woburn created a downtown mixed-use district that encouraged the conversion of vacant upper stories to housing, the first to be redeveloped on the Busy Bend block was the fire-damaged Pilgrim building, for years Woburn Square's only completely abandoned building.
"Everyone thought I was crazy," said owner Sean Coakley . "Woburn's center was pretty beat up. But when I was younger it was the busiest place around."
Coakley said he was willing to risk redeveloping the property after receiving a state community development grant that requires him to keep new residential units affordably priced for 15 years. The building fa?ade was preserved and four one-bedroom loft apartments were built. None of the renters have moved in yet. The first floor has a Subway sandwich shop.
Five more mixed-use projects on other property, some using the same grant, have been completed or are planned, creating 20 apartments. Sites include two new popular restaurants, Tremonte and Tudo Na Brasa .
Such small-scale "top of shop" developments allow communities to gradually adjust to the changes in their downtowns, said Mark Racicot of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.
"The scale of development is critical for many communities," he said. "They want to make sure they're not winding up with massive structures, so if they see them broken up into smaller structures, it's not overwhelming."
That approach worked in Dennis, where town officials and the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod used some clever photo editing in 2004 to convince residents to support new zoning that allows for residential and commercial mixes in the downtown. They had several photos taken of single-story commercial buildings and then altered them to show what they would look like if upper floors were added. The results were images of buildings that are modest in size, and do not appear out of scale or appearance.
"The Cape Cod brand -- quaint villages, the land of sand and water -- has been diminished by sprawling developments along most roads," said Maggie Geist , the association's executive director. "We're working on town center revitalization, and we've heard over and over, 'We don't like density, we don't like height.' And then we ask 'What are your favorite towns on the Cape?' and we hear towns like Chatham, Provincetown, Woods Hole -- the ones with density and taller buildings."
Under the zoning change, downtown Dennis Port buildings can now go up to three stories, as they did in the 1800s before a fire wiped out structures that were replaced with single-story buildings, Geist said. One proposal is for 17 residential units over 11 storefronts on Hall Street. An affordable-housing bylaw, which also encourages mixed-use, led to the conversion of a mostly vacant Telegraph Road building that now houses seven affordable apartments over two retail spaces.
The new apartments also address another Cape problem: lack of affordable housing. "The tourist economy creates a big demand for retail, and we felt we needed to create the opportunity for every new retail project to house the employees who work in retail," said Dan Fortier , Dennis town planner.
A new mixed-use district in Barnstable allows buildings in downtown Hyannis to reach three stories instead of a previous two-story limit. The first such project -- at the site of a former miniature golf course -- will house 16 condominiums over five retail spaces. At Main and Ocean streets, the 1920s fa?ade of a former theater and museum will be preserved as the building is converted to 10,000 square feet of retail at ground level, with 22 condos upstairs.
Two other seaside communities, Falmouth and Manchester-by-the-Sea, built new residential units -- many of which are reserved for lower-income tenants or buyers -- that included retail spaces. In Falmouth, town officials wanted to liven up the streetscape and extend downtown's reach. In Manchester-by-the-Sea, the commercial portion of the Summer Street Condominiums and Apartments was sold to the retailers, which helped make the project financially feasible, said Joanne Graves , executive director of the Manchester Housing Authority, which manages the apartments.
In downtown New Bedford, five old, mostly brick commercial buildings that were either vacant on their upper stories or entirely abandoned are now the Union Street Lofts. The 35 apartments -- including 20 affordable units -- were completed last year and leased within six months, said Mark Hess of HallKeen , the real estate company that developed the properties with a local nonprofit. The redevelopment boosted a city that suffers from crime, poverty, and neglect.
"The central business district was suffering, and we took some of the worst of what New Bedford had and created some of the best of what New Bedford has," Hess said. "If you want safety and life in a downtown, then the best strategy is to keep the lights on at night."
? Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.