Breathing new life into empty buildings

New and creative uses for vacant commercial space


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Low foot traffic at the Steeplegate Mall in Concord led to a drop in the property's value. It was sold last June for $10.3 million — $83 million less than its assessed value from a decade ago.

Courtesy photo

For years, they can sit dormant, waiting.

The paint will peel, the wood will chip, windows can be smashed. The buildings, which once served a specific use, are empty.

You see them when driving on major roadways in towns or in densely populated districts, and at times, you can’t help but wonder, “What’s next?”

Sometimes, though, it’s not always so obvious. Take the Steeplegate Mall in Concord, for example.

For years, there have been many tries to overcome the challenge of trying to fill the building’s empty shops. In all, there are about 17 spots open in the 26-year-old mall, and there’s been a loss of many big names stores, like Gap, Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle.

The mall itself was sold in June 2016 for $10.3 million — a significant lower amount than its $83 million assessed value less than a decade earlier.

Steeplegate certainly isn’t the only mall to be experiencing such struggles. A May 2016 Time magazine article reported that nearly half of the roughly 1,100 enclosed malls in the U.S. were expected to close within the following year.

The reason for this, according to the article, is primarily due to the struggle big anchor stores are experiencing.

Macy’s has undergone one of its worst years financially and has plans to close as many as 170 stores; JCPenney has cut payroll and frozen employee overtime, after closing about 40 stores in 2015, with plans to close another 130 to 140 stores this year (including, possibly, its store at the Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester); and more than 200 Sears locations have closed since 2014. 

The big retailers’ troubles are being felt at smaller-scale shopping centers as well, like strip malls. Their popularity has been on the decline for years, for many of the same reasons: the popularity of online shopping and space limits.

The hunt for a new home

Epsom’s strip mall located off the Suncook Valley Highway houses an unusual tenant: the town offices.

“I think it’s worked OK for us, but it’s not the same as having our own building,” said Selectman Chris Bowes.

It costs about $40,000 in rent each year, which increases by 2 percent annually.

“It’s pretty expensive,” Bowes said.

During a town meeting in March, voters were expected to weigh in on whether they think the town should set up a special fund that can be used in the future to either purchase or build new offices.

Figuring out where to put the new town offices has been in the works for years. During the 2016 town meeting, residents weighed in on an article to build a new town office on a town-owned piece of land between the police station and the post office. That article failed by about a dozen votes.

When and if the move finally does come, then comes the question of what to do with the spaces currently being used for the town offices. Though there’s an inside door that connects the suites, they’re technically two separate spaces.

And while all the storefronts in the mall currently have tenants, it took a while to get to this point.

“For the longest time in that mall, there were vacancies,” Bowes said, adding that he’s optimistic about refilling the space should the town offices be moved in the near future.

But for some municipalities, this outlook isn’t always fulfilled.

Tale of two buildings

For years, two buildings have sat together awaiting whatever change in their fate residents or city officials might propose.

Two properties flagging Keene City Hall — the former Keene Middle School on Washington Street and the YMCA off Roxbury Street — are both undergoing an overhaul. They both were closed in the last decade.

The middle school is in the process of being turned into performance space, a restaurant and nightclub, with talk of putting in apartments in the back of the space sometime in the future.

“A mixed-use building is what they’re proposing,” said John Rogers, Keene’s acting code and health director.

Developers are building within the current building and work to revitalize the outside as well.

“They’ve gone through the process of getting the Historic District Commission approval,” Rogers said.

The Planning Board also approved the change of use for the building.

The neighboring Y, on the other hand, is being torn apart brick by brick. The land will be used as the new site for MoCo Arts and will house its new black box theater. The nonprofit provides dance, music and multi-art courses for residents of all ages.

The work is a huge benefit for Keene, according to city officials, because it brings those properties back on the tax rolls and means more potential places for resident to go.

“It’s encouraging to see,” said City Manager Med Kopczynski.

Tuscan Village, a giant mixed-use development, is developer Joe Faro’s vision for the former Rockingham Park racetrack in Salem.

It’s not the first time old buildings in the city have been reused. Take the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship. The brick building that houses incubator space and staff off Roxbury Street has had a few other lives — at one point it was a car dealership — before taking on its current role.

“There’s a couple of ways to look at that, sustainability being one,” said Planning Department Director Rhett Lamb of the buildings’ reuse.

Even if a building isn’t reused, like the old YMCA, city officials say that’s all right in light of the challenges that route can present.

“It’s a tough building,” Kopczynski said of the YMCA. “What do you do with a building of that size? At times, you have to tear it down and rebuild.”

Series of reincarnations

For many of the older buildings in Goffstown, a similar story to that of Keene’s Middle School has been told: they’re still standing and either on their way to their second life or already there.

Take the Meetinghouse at Goffstown. Nestled just off of downtown, the 55-plus living community provides one- and two-bedroom apartments in the faded brick building that used to be the town’s high school and middle school.

The property is managed by Finlay Management Inc., a Miami, Fla.-based company that works with other similar facilities in New Hampshire, Florida, South Carolina and Texas.

The 1925 school building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so for town officials, this repurposing saves part of the history in town. 

“I’m glad they saved the old high school, the conversion to assisted-living type facilities is something I see happening more frequently,” said Jon O’Rourke, the town’s planning and zoning administrator.

Just a block or so away sits Apotheca Flowers and Tea Chest, a cafe and flower shop that opened in the old train station building in 2008, just three years after the business started.

Founder Alyssa Van Guilder also partnered with Rossina Moran to open Acopio, the sister store to Apotheca. The store is located in the town’s old post office building and sells goods and clothing from New England and around the world.

And then there’s the Villa Augustina School, which closed in 2014. It was bought about a year later by RdF Corp., a company based in Hudson that designs, develops and produces different types of temperature and heat flow sensors. 

What happens with the building, though, remains somewhat in flux. No plans have been filed with the town indicating any major changes to the building and its new owners have been relatively silent since the sale.

“I haven’t heard anything new on the Villa unfortunately and would love to know what they intend to use that for,” O’Rourke said. “I know they are doing some work on repairing/replacing the boiler/heating system but that’s about my extent of knowledge on the goings on there right now.”

Getting creative

Sometimes, though, it’s about getting creative, like turning an old bank into the Allenstown Police Department.

Closing off the teller drive-through lanes created the sally port for officers to bring in suspects, and the former vault is perfect for storing evidence. It’s also located right off Route 3, making it easily accessible to various parts of town.

“The existing office space was perfect for our needs,” said Town Administrator Shaun Mulholland, who served as police captain when the department made the move to the new space.

Previously, the department was housed in the basement of the town offices (located in an old school on School Street), but due to space and health concerns, needed to move elsewhere.

“It was condemned two weeks after we moved out of there,” said Mulholland.

There was some talk of putting the new station next to the fire station in town. However, that plan quickly fell through.

“There just wasn’t enough space on that plot to do that,” Mulholland said.

The entire cost of the building and the renovations that needed to be done to fit the police department’s needs ended up costing $725,000. Some of the other alternatives were projected to be more than $1 million.

“It was in the best interest of the town to do it this way,” Mulholland said. “That building will last the town at least another 50 years.”

Entirely new, and huge

Sometimes these proposed projects can be transformative. Take the Tuscan Village development in Salem.

It’s planned for the former Rockingham Park property, which is tucked between the Rockingham Mall and Route 28 through town. The park, a historic racetrack, shut down permanently in August after more than 100 years.

The multi-phase, multi-use development is expected to bring major improvements for the town and create a downtown, village-like gathering place for both residents and visitors to Salem.

A movie theater, housing, restaurants and retail spaces are just some of the proposed uses of the more than 100-acre plot of land. Over the last few months, developers have been meeting with the town’s planning board in order to put some of the plans in motion.

The goal is to start the first wave of construction in 2019.

Price tag of the project is expected to be in the multi-millions, some of which will be footed by investors, according to developer and property owner Joe Faro. The Windham entrepreneur is CEO of Tuscan Brands, which includes the Tuscan Kitchen chain.

It’s not a project common to either Salem or the region. Faro told a Jan. 31 planning board meeting that most of his inspiration came from completed developments around the U.S.

“It’s a true iteration of multi-use, which is live, work, stay, play,” he said.

Faro said he expects the economic benefits will be immense for the town.

Impact fees alone will bring in an estimated $8 million, Faro said. He’s also predicting about $15 million in infrastructure improvements for the area.

Over the course of construction, Faro said, he expects to generate 1,000 construction jobs for workers. And once all is said and done, he’s estimating about 5,000 new, permanent jobs.

“We’re very, very excited for this opportunity,” Faro said. “We’re very excited to bring this to the town of Salem.” 

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