Bridgewater officials are weighing whether to support the plans of a developer who says he can help bring a renaissance to the downtown through a series of projects under Chapter 40B, the state’s affordable-housing law.
Developer Jim Paskell’s plans call for demolishing a boarded-up former rental housing building at 76-78 Broad St. and replacing it with a new building of 25 rental apartments and three commercial spaces. Paskell would also add housing units at three other downtown sites, and deed a property behind the Academy Building to the town for parking use.
The developer seeks to use the so-called “friendly 40B” provision of the housing law in which developers obtain the support of town officials prior to permitting to avoid the acrimony that often accompanies Chapter 40B projects.
The proposed package comes after Bridgewater’s recent adoption of new zoning rules that would allow housing on the upper stories of buildings in the central business district as one way to bring vitality to the downtown.
Paskell, the owner of West Point Realty Development, said he sees his proposal as a “great opportunity to be part of the renaissance of downtown Bridgewater.”
He believes there is a strong market for good rental housing in the downtown, given its proximity to public transportation, major roadways, and Bridgewater State University. Citing empty-nesters and college students as among the potential renters, he said his projects would incorporate bike racks and access to Zipcars.
“I actually love the center of town. I truly believe that with an economic infusion it could be even more vibrant,” he said.
But town officials are still deciding whether to give their support.
Town planner Greg Guimond said the town’s Housing Partnership, whose support is considered key to reaching any agreement, has concerns about the density, mass, height, and design of the proposed building at 76-78 Broad St., which would occupy a three-quarter acre site. But, he said: “We are in negotiations with him.”
The proposal represents a revised version of a plan Paskell proposed two years ago, which called for 33 housing units and three commercial spaces at 76-78 Broad St. and no other projects.
Guimond said partnership members were uncomfortable even with the reduced number of units proposed. They “would be willing to consider it” because the town would gain the land behind the Academy Building at 38 South St. The town is preparing a major overhaul of the municipal office building, and Guimond said it could use more parking in that area.
Under the plan, Paskell would give the town the South Street parcel — currently the site of a five-unit rental housing building — and the town would in turn “transfer the development rights” from that property to 76-78 Broad St., enabling him to build a higher density on that site than town zoning would normally allow.
If an agreement is reached, Paskell would still need to seek a comprehensive permit for the projects from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
A Chapter 40B project denied at the local level can be appealed to the state if fewer than 10 percent of a community’s housing is affordable; 6.42 percent of Bridgewater’s units meet that standard. But Guimond said the town in April gained a two-year “safe harbor” from unwanted projects due to having created a housing production plan, and has met its two-year target.
Although the Town Council has no official role in the process, Paskell recently presented the proposal to councilors in hopes of gaining their support.
Tim Fitzgibbons, the council president, said he could not comment on the overall plan because he has not been involved with the specifics. But he said, “I think it’s positive whenever a boarded-up, abandoned property is going to be reused and made into a property that is much more vital. . . . I’d rather see lights turned on in the downtown than turned off.”
Paskell, a Hanover resident, said he has had recent productive conversations with Bridgewater officials and remained hopeful of reaching an agreement. “We are trying to seek some consensus. . . . I believe that we ultimately want to get this done,” he said.
In addition to the project at 76-78 Broad St., Paskell’s plan calls for converting a two-family house at 86 Broad St. to a three-family; adding a second three-decker to 152 Plymouth St., and converting a four-family at 48 Bedford St. to a six-family. As required by Chapter 40B, at least 25 percent of the units in all four projects would be affordable.
Paskell said he chose to follow the route of a friendly 40B – the Local Initiative Program – because he wanted to work cooperatively with the town.
In April 2012, then outgoing town manager Troy Clarkson issued Paskell a letter expressing the town’s support for his proposed project at 76-78 Broad St., saying it could be “an important engine to fuel the redevelopment of Bridgewater’s downtown commercial district.”
The letter said the approval was subject to reviews by the Housing Partnership and regulatory agencies, however, and the partnership later voiced its concerns about the size of the project, according to Guimond.
Last January, Paskell returned with his scaled-back plan for 76-78 Broad St., and more recently in discussions with the town added the other three projects.
Paskell said he is not happy with how long the process has taken, noting that in the months before receiving his 2012 letter, he had worked with town officials to achieve consensus. And he said his current plan represents a significant reduction of the original one. But he said he wants to continue the effort to reach an agreement, voicing his appreciation to town officials for working with him.
“I want to be a friend of the town and not a foe,” he said.