Commission, city officials at odds over Laconia site

‘Wellness village plan’ stirs concern over economic benefits
There are 31 buildings on the Laconia State School property with 100 acres of forested areas.

The Lakeshore Redevelopment Planning Commission, charged with plotting the future of the former Laconia State School property, and city officials, in the midst of preparing the master plan, may find themselves working at cross purposes.

In September, the commission’s Boston-based consulting firm, NBBJ, proposed turning the property into a “multi-generational wellness village,” centered on a continuing care facility, sports complex and resort hotel, ringed by both senior housing and starter homes and complemented by limited retail and office space. The proposal was unveiled at a public hearing that drew more than 50 people to Laconia Middle School.

Mayor Ed Engler, reminding commissioners that their charge, as prescribed by legislation, is to recommend alternatives for developing the property “for self-sustaining economic development and job creation,” said that elements of the proposal “fly completely in the face of that original charge, both from the standpoint of economic development potential and the standpoint of what it does to our future demographic profile and our efforts here in the city to turn that profile around.”

Engler added that “demography is destiny” and put the city and state’s aging population as their foremost challenge.

“I for one, as a 71-year-old, am tired of being in meetings and groups in this city where I’m the youngest person there,” Engler said. “I think any part of this proposal to me personally is a non-starter that has anything to do with trying to attract more older people to our community.”

The mayor recalled that Senate President Chuck Morse, whose legislation created the commission, envisioned the property as “an economic engine for the city, region and state. “I urge you not to lose sight of that goal. Please do no harm.”

In fact, he suggested, “if the current market conditions don’t allow for this property to be an economic engine, I personally would much rather see it mothballed and await a time when it could be put to use as an economic engine.” 

Master plan

Meeting a week after the presentation, members of the city council shared the mayor’s misgivings. Councilors agreed to advise the commission of their concern that a continuing care community and age-restricted housing would exacerbate the demographic imbalance in the city, where the population has hovered at about 16,000 since 1960, the median age has reached 46.7 years and school enrollment has shrunk 13 percent in the last decade.

“We have an imbalance of older versus younger, so age-restricted housing is exactly the opposite direction of where we want to go,” said Councilor Henry Lipman. “We’ve talked about the balance between middle class and the rest of the community as being out of balance.”

With respect to these issues, Lipman described NBBJ’s proposal as “stabs in the back.” 

The land-use chapter of the master plan adopted in May speaks to “rolling out a welcome mat to encourage growth and development.” In particular, the plan contemplates tailoring land-use policies and capital investments to address hindrances to developing reasonably priced housing, overcoming an aging demographic and stagnant population and increasing the commercial tax base, which has shrunk by a fifth since 2007.

The plan notes that “growth in the mid-priced residential market is integral to stimulating growth in the commercial/industrial properties as commercial uses need customers and industrial uses need employees.”

George Bald, chair of the commission, emphasized that the panel has reached no decision and taken no votes on the proposal.

“We’re further along,” he said, “but still gathering information, especially about the economic impact of the project.” He added that, “we appreciate the mayor’s comments and are impressed by the interest shown and questions asked by the citizens of Laconia.”

‘Not the first step’

The property, owned by the state, stretches across 200 acres in the northwest quarter of the city overlooking two lakes — Winnisquam to the west and Opechee to the east — but has no shorefront on either. However, the property abuts Ahern State Park to the west, nearly 130 acres of woodland with 3,500 feet of shoreline on Lake Winnisquam, and Opechee Bay State Forest, a 48-acre hayfield with 2,400 feet of shoreline on Lake Opechee to the east.

One of the commission’s directives is to “identify potential opportunities for integrating future reuse and redevelopment of the property” with Ahern State Park. 

There are 31 buildings on the site, most clustered on some 63 acres near the center of the property. These include dormitories, classrooms, offices, garages and outbuildings built between 1905 and 1975, some in good condition, some in need of restoration and some beyond repair. Approximately half the acreage is forested, divided between two areas of about 50 acres apiece, one on the west flank and another at the northeast corner.

There are a variety of environmental issues both on the property and in the buildings.

Attorney Robert Cheney, a member of the commission who oversaw the remediation of environmental issues at the Pease International Tradeport, said that discussions with both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the NH Department of Environmental Services are underway. Past estimates placed the cost of addressing the problems at some $3 million.

“We’re not the first step,” said Alan Mountjoy, principal of NBBJ, referring to the earlier work of Camion Associates of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. After an analysis of regional economic conditions and property markets the firm concluded that residential development offers “the greatest market potential” and appears “the most feasible” option for redeveloping the site. 

The firm suggested the site could carry as many as 540 residential units of different types and prices, including both workforce and senior housing, along with a small hotel and commercial and retail space. The firm also presented scenarios with a resort hotel and a sports complex as their centerpieces, which included smaller residential components.

Rachel Selsky of Camion said that “finding a jobs creator” was a priority for the commission and stressed that “housing is an economic development issue. It’s not traditional, but directly connected to the ability to attract jobs.” 

Development proposals

The commission engaged NBBJ to prepare a master plan for the site, which would include not only recommended uses for the property but also designs and specifications for infrastructure and buildings. NBBJ also prepared three scenarios, each with a different anchor use — a continuing care facility, resort hotel and sports complex — along with nearly identical residential and commercial components. The three were melded into one proposed “hybrid option” presented at the public hearing.

The center of the site, where most of the existing buildings are situated, would be most intensely developed. The continuing care facility would be housed in a 100,000-square-foot building with 75 beds near the center of the site. Nearby, one of the existing buildings would be restored for use as an 81,000-square-foot hotel with 120 rooms, a restaurant and fitness center. Within walking distance, 17,400 square feet would be allotted for retail space, 7,500 square feet for a second restaurant and 7,500 square feet for office suites, including medical offices. 

The sports complex would stretch over 34 acres at the southeast corner of the property and include a small field house, 18 full-sized soccer fields and 11 full-sized baseball diamonds. The plan does not designate space for parking.

The residential element would consist of 150 starter homes, 120 market-rate apartments and 75 age-restricted units. The two-story starter homes, between six and nine units per acre, would be built on 4,000 square feet with driveways to detached garages in 30 acres of woodland toward the northeast corner of the property bounded by Parade Road and Meredith Center Road. 

Half a dozen apartment buildings would be adjacent to the hotel, shops and offices at the center of the site. The senior housing would be strung along either side of a bisected loop running from the central district through the 40 wooded acres on the western edge of the property. 

Altogether, the densities of the developed areas, landscaped buffers around the center and along the western and northern borders of the site and 25 acres at the north and 12 acres to the south reserved for future use would leave half the site as open space. 

Categories: Real Estate & Construction