MANCHESTER — Stormwater and parking — two potential complications that city officials and planners have long known would pose challenges for the redevelopment of the city’s 301 Depot St. plot — are the main issues at the center of a assessment project that was handed over to the Depot Street work group.
Meeting early Wednesday morning at City Hall and on Zoom, the task force reviewed a report from Bennington-based MSK Engineers. The firm is among several experts retained by the city, with up to $100,000 in US federal Rescue Plan Act funds, to help determine whether Manchester should seek a developer or buyer for the property.
The city’s lease with Manchester Designer Outlets ends on April 1 next year. Several options are on the table, including a mixed-use, mixed-income housing development – possibly with city offices as a tenant.
The proposal reviewed by MSK works with concept drawings and a footprint, submitted by KaTO Architects, of how the site, which extends to Center Hill Road, could be used.
This concept drawing assumed the maximum footprint, which would allow a maximum of approximately 56 housing units. Officials have considered building about 40 units on the city-owned site, which once housed the city hall and public safety agencies.
But not all of that footprint would be built; some would be parking. And according to MSK’s assessment, the concept plan is about 25 fewer parking spaces than the 115 it would need under current city bylaws.
City manager John O’Keefe said the city had contacted Crosspoint Associates – the owners of the adjacent Manchester shopping center – to see if the city could make use of an underused car park on its property.
MSK’s review also determined that a state stormwater permit would likely be required during construction. Based on the concept, the consultants believe that a permanent permit would also be required for wastewater, requiring on-site treatment.
As for Law 250, the project is expected to escape state land use regulations thanks to a new state law that exempts “priority” housing projects that offer a mix of affordable and market-priced housing and meet other stormwater management conditions. The law, which was part of a multimillion-dollar housing package signed by Governor Phil Scott, included aspects of a housing bill first proposed by Manchester Reps. Kathleen James and Seth Bongartz.
A key part of meeting this requirement is for Manchester to extend its neighborhood development area along Depot Street. Planning and zoning director Janet Hurley said she was working on the plan.
During the meeting, residents Brian Benson and Steve Nichols asked questions about the proposal and how the combination of income levels in a new housing development would work.
Nichols asked if taxpayers’ money was being used at the planning stage without voter approval and expressed concern that rents might not be affordable for people in low-income jobs.
O’Keefe responded that the Select Board had allocated up to $100,000 in ARPA dollars for the effort, adding that the city needed a plan for the property once the lease expired. Even if the city were to sell, it would face potential environmental issues at the site, he added, noting that a pair of underground oil tanks were removed from the property years ago.
Board member Heidi Chamberlain added that the use of ARPA money is in line with the program as housing problems in Manchester have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
But Nichols’ question about rents, and Benson’s follow-up question about whether a combination of market-priced housing and affordable/labour housing had worked elsewhere, led to a discussion more on the definition of these terms and how tax credits and grants could be applied in Manchester.
William Colvin of the Bennington County Regional Commission said 35% of units in the Putnam Block are priced at the labor level, with one- and two-bedroom units spread across the development. They were fully rented on the day the development opened, Colvin said, and there is a waiting list to get in. Rents at Putnam Block range between $850 and $2,500 a month, he said.
As for local demand for such units, Planning Commission member Greg Boshart said he expects there will be demand for 400 units in Manchester, let alone 40.