Newly adopted building code may lure more residents downtown
When Dick Anagnost developed the historic Chase Block property on Manchester’s Elm Street in 1999, he had six floors to rehabilitate – and only one tenant.It was a $3 million renovation project that would have cost significantly less under a building code recently adopted by Manchester, said Anagnost, who owns and has developed many properties throughout the city. Anagnost said he had to reconstruct all six floors of the staircase in the Chase Block and install an elevator in order to get a certificate of occupancy for the first-floor tenant. “Under the new code, you have the flexibility of not having to put in that staircase or that elevator in order to put in your tenant,” he said. “The (new) code will give you a platform of flexibility to rehabilitate our historical structures in Manchester in a more efficient fashion.”Downtown boosters are hoping the International Existing Building Code, or IEBC, adopted in May by the city, will help facilitate the renovation process of the city’s older buildings and encourage landlords to develop more of downtown’s upper stories for residential use.”We are looking to encourage residential because it helps to give greater overall balance and more vibrancy in our downtown,” said Jay Minkarah, Manchester’s economic development director.Although there are many vacant upper stories, uninhabitable space is the exception, Minkarah said. “What’s more typical is you have upper floors that are marginally used in the sense that they’re not realizing their full potential,” he said.Anagnost has been pushing for the building code change since 2000. The Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce also has been a longtime advocate. “Initially, our effort was to try to have it adopted at the statewide level,” said Michael Skelton, vice president of economic development and advocacy for the chamber. “But we found that a more reasonable and sensible approach was to move at a community level, because really the state wants to see this work at a local, municipal level before they decide whether to adopt it for the entire state.”Better communicationThe city of Concord adopted the IEBC in 2008 in order to help encourage property owners to revitalize older downtown buildings, according to Carlos Baia, the city’s deputy city manager for development.”Our staff had already been outstanding in terms of trying to find ways to use common-sense approaches,” Baia said. “But what we really needed was to have a set of rules we could refer to to basically give us that extra legitimacy when we made a decision that said, ‘Look, it makes common sense, and here’s the reason why; here’s the code we can cite.'”Nashua also has begun taking a look at the IEBC. “Even though we’re a little behind, I feel we’ll be able to move a little more quickly than Manchester and Concord simply because we now have those two cities to look to as sister cities that have already adopted them and therefore have kind of paved the way,” said J. Christopher Williams, president of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce.Portsmouth has not adopted the International Existing Building Code, but the city permits multifamily dwellings throughout the central business district, stipulating that the ground floor be used for nonresidential purposes and encouraging residential use on the upper floors. “We’ve all been in parts of cities where everything closes up at 5 o’clock, and you might be walking downtown in the evening feeling like you’re in a ghost town, so Portsmouth has always encouraged mixed use in the downtown,” said Nancy Carmer, economic development program manager for Portsmouth.Nashua Fire Marshal Richard Wood, who works closely with building officials on code matters, says the IEBC does not represent a radical departure from the International Building Code, or IBC, which is still the statewide code in New Hampshire. In fact, Wood says, the IBC includes a chapter that covers existing buildings and also allows for flexibility. But the IEBC may help improve communication. “It adds some plain language and makes it easy to navigate so that hopefully the consistency of interpretation is there,” he said.”From a regulatory perspective, I don’t see it as something we need to have, but I certainly would acquiesce that the development community thinks it would provide them a clear road map, and for that reason I really don’t have any heartburn with it,” Wood said. Manchester building official Karl Franck said that even before adopting the IEBC, officials provided flexibility – for instance, allowing work to be done in stages in older buildings, as long as required safety systems, such as sprinklers, are installed. But, he conceded, the IEBC’s methodology may make renovation projects easier.Lack of inventoryDick Anagnost says his rental property on Manchester’s Elm Street is always full. His two-bedroom units, some of which include home-office space, rent for $900 to $1,100 a month.”This is the place to be. This is where the action takes place,” he said of downtown Manchester. “We had originally a huge influx of young professionals, and we still have that today, because essentially it puts them where they work and where they play.”Attracting people to live downtown has been easy, said Jessica Eshleman, executive director of Main Street Concord. “If anything, what’s tough is the lack of inventory, meaning I literally run a waiting list of people who would like to purchase downtown homes,” Eshleman said. “The stumbling block is that the homes are not available to be purchased. They need to be developed.”Nationally, people have been returning to urban and downtown areas over the last 15 to 20 years, said Katherine Hersh, community development director of Nashua. “We are certainly looking to expand housing downtown,” she said.But development money has dried up in the lagging economy. A new downtown condominium building in Nashua is only about half full, Hersh said. And other proposed residential projects for downtown are on hold, including one that would result in more than 160 units. Cities also are looking for variety in downtown housing. Concord wants to attract more market-level and high-end downtown living to balance its affordable and low-income housing.Portsmouth has more work to do on the affordable end of things, according to Nancy Carmer. The city has tried including planning incentives to encourage that type of development, she said. “Our struggle is, we don’t want to become a gentrified community. We have a fair amount of hospitality businesses that require a workforce that has to live somewhere, and we don’t think it’s great that they have to commute from Wakefield or Rochester or something,” she said.