Affordable housing transformation request gets thumbs up from Manchester Planning Board
A historical property on Manchester Street gets the OK to transition into 5 workforce housing units
On Thursday night, the Planning Board made two approvals that will add workforce housing to a historical downtown building in Manchester.
In unanimous votes, the board approved a waiver from site plan review and a change of use request to create five housing units on the first floor of 55 and 57 Manchester St., a building originally constructed in 1910.
At June’s Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting, a square footage variance was granted to the Chhom Group, acting on behalf of building owner Commonwealth Collective LLC. That led the way to a public hearing earlier this month on the two requests to the Planning Board.
Chhom Group Representative Amy Chhom told the board that site plan review was not necessary since the structure of the building will largely remain unchanged and the building is already up to the lot line, making structural changes that would expand the footprint of the building impossible without easements.
While the Planning Board generally does not grant first-floor change-of-use requests for developers looking to build residential units, given that the city’s zoning ordinance recommends mixed-use development in the city’s downtown Central Business District or CBD, where the building is located. However, the fact that the five units would be at 80 percent of Area Median Income given the lack of housing in the city, especially affordable housing, proved to be a convincing argument for the change.
Planning Board Member Bob Gagne feared earlier this month that allowing the change of use may set a precedent for future developers to ignore the underlying mixed-use premise of the CBD but acknowledged the situation regarding affordable housing shortages.
“I’d like to see this become more like Hanover Street, but wishing doesn’t make it so,” he said.
Chhom and Commonwealth Collective LLC Representative Michael Ketchen told the board that a “faux-commercial” façade would be placed at the front of the building on the first floor as the opening for a communal co-working and gathering space for residents. The five studio apartments are expected to be rented at $1,398 a month with tenants receiving free electricity, water, sewer, heat and Wi-Fi, in addition to a bike storage and laundry area. A large mural is planned on the eastern side of the building, and renovations are already underway on higher floors.
Ketchen and Chhom also argued that bringing residents back to the area of Manchester Street between Elm and Chestnut streets would bring in more business growth, as 36 percent of frontage in that area is currently vacant, 20 percent is vacant and not managed by in-state property owners, and 53 percent is “dormant,” or part of a building not accessible to the general public.
Commonwealth also owns several other properties on Manchester Street and is looking to purchase more in the hopes of transforming the block into a “luxury” area comparable to Hanover Street just a block north.
Members of the board expressed concern that the unit rents would be raised to market rates once state grant funding for the renovation of the building that requires affordable housing dries up in five years. Ketchen said that changing rental rates would go against the strategy of drawing in new tenants to help grow nearby business, and that excessive tenant turnover would lead to lower profits, making him prefer to establish relationships with tenants that move in at the $1,398 a month rate.
There was also concern regarding a lack of Americans with Disabilities Act access in the front of the building, with ramps placed in a communal area described as comparable to the courtyard at Restoration Café in the rear of the building. Those fears were escalated given that access to that area through Monadnock Lane, the alley behind the building, may not be available to the building owners in the future given current agreements with the Volvo dealership across Monadnock Lane from the building.
However, Chhom said that ramps would not be able to be placed on the front of the building without significantly impacting the nearby sidewalks as well as the historical façade of the building.
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