Bellows Falls Garage project to add 27 rental units
Work is steadily progressing on the Bellows Falls Garage Housing Project on Rockingham Street.

Bellows Falls Garage project to add 27 rental units

Construction of new building on a historic footprint is moving along toward occupancy in 2023

BELLOWS FALLS — The Bellows Falls Garage Housing Project is ready for winter and on schedule to be completed in 2023.

The wood-and-concrete block structure just north of The Square at 115 Rockingham St., is fully framed. The roof is finished, the exterior is sheathed, and the windows have been installed. Buttoned up and ready for the cold and snow, the winter months will be used to finish the building's interior.

“Work is going as scheduled,” said Elizabeth Bridgewater, executive director of the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT), which oversees the project. “It should be done by the end of March 2023.”

Stewart Property Management, which will be managing the building and several others in the community, is already taking the names of people interested in renting an apartment.

“We have to be within 60 days of occupancy before we will accept applications,” Bridgewater said. “But they have created a notification list to keep people informed. You can get your number on that right now."

Other projects that WWHT oversees in Bellows Falls include the renovated Howard Block, just opposite The Square, with 13 second- and third-floor apartments and six street-level retail spaces, and the Exner Block, just off The Square, which was renovated in the late 1990s with 10 apartments and retail spaces.

Both buildings provide a number of apartments in the downtown area. Both have been completed and occupied for decades, providing clean, well-managed homes for village residents, with no noticeable impact on town schools or services, according to Gary Fox, Rockingham development director. WWHT has also renovated several houses in the community.

The Bellows Falls Garage building will offer five 480-square-foot studio apartments, 18 one-bedroom apartments ranging in size from 526 to 634 square feet, and four two-bedroom apartments in the 840-to-990-square-foot range, for a total of 27 units.

“The building was developed to meet the needs of a variety of citizens,” Bridgewater said. “We took into account the area's needs and income levels from low and middle to market rate. The building will serve a range of community members.”

“Windham County has a high level of single-person homes,” she observed.

The building has limited outdoor space and limited parking, which is not attractive to larger families, Bridgewater explained, noting that the site is better suited for single people and couples. The WWHT is providing residents parking vouchers for municipal lots as one way to address the issue.

A change of plans

While original plans intended to use the concrete shell of the 102-year-old building that stood on the site, that plan was abandoned when serious flaws were discovered in the old concrete work.

At that time, the WWHT decided to preserve only the concrete front façade of the original design, but that plan was also scrapped for safety reasons.

As demolition began, workers discovered that when the concrete walls were originally poured over a century ago, the material did not properly cure in several places. This resulted in gaps and holes in the concrete walls in enough places to make the structure unsafe to modify or preserve.

“In a way, that ended up being a good thing,” Bridgewater said. “In the original plan we'd have lost the front exterior design due to sheathing. As it is now, we can re-create the original façade.”

“The new building actually has more character now than if we had preserved the front,” she said. “We now have a safe, new, efficient building with the same concrete front design.”

Bridgewater explained that the concrete front of the building was taken down and replaced by a concrete block wall. A parge coat of mortar applied to the exterior will restore the simple, original design of the front of the building, which will look like the poured concrete of the original building.

Over its lifetime, the building has been used as a car dealership, a parking garage, a gas station, a body shop, a machine shop, a dry cleaner, and a retail shop. It has been used for storage and for woodworking, and at one time it was owned and occupied by a religious commune.

And while it has been lived in at times and had one occupied apartment that faced Canal Street, the building will provide much-needed housing in the village.

“The biggest thing,” said Development Director Fox, “is that this creates a lot of new, high-quality housing downtown. Bellows Falls has seen a loss of population over the last decade. There needs to be more people supporting the downtown. Adding 27 housing units will add a lot more, much-needed foot traffic to the downtown.”

Dealing with challenges

Because the Bellows Falls Garage building presented some unique and difficult rebuilding challenges, Bridgewater was asked to make a presentation about the project to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency's 2022 Statewide Housing Conference on Nov. 16.

Bridgewater described the project as part of the “Housing in Hidden Places: Creating New Housing through Adaptive Reuse” panel. Ben Doyle, president of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, put together a panel for the presentation in Burlington.

Bridgewater said she started with the original design, covered the problems that were discovered during demolition, and explained how the design was adapted to solve the problems.

“Community members were also part of the design process,” Bridgewater said, praising local resident Jeff Dunbar, a project consultant for Farnum Insulators, for being “really helpful and [giving] a lot of good feedback on the project.”

Bridgewater said that the community had input on the initial design, on adaptations to that design when problems arose, and on the texture and coloring of the building's exterior. She said her presentation at the conference, with its discussion of real-life development problems and how they were solved, was very well received.

The $10.7 million project is funded with federal and state money along with federal tax credit equity. The building will include 19 apartments eligible for rental vouchers. Income eligibility ranges from $16,500 to $84,600 a year, with rents ranging from $400 to $1,088 a month, utilities included.

The project fills a long-acknowledged need for the nonprofit to address housing needs in the village and surrounding towns.

A new strategic plan for the town focused on the Garage building. It took several tries, but former building owner Frank Hawkins finally agreed to sell the Trust the building in 2020.

The WWHT has raised several hundred thousand dollars for rental rehabilitation projects in town, focused on improving existing rental properties.

“That's another initiative we have in BF,” Bridgewater said. “A program in town for renovating existing units. We have a good working relationship with the municipality.”

Another WWHT program helps provide a generous down payment for people trying to buy a house, and there are several of those in Rockingham as well.

“The parting words of the former executive director when I took over were, 'You've got to find a project in Bellows Falls!'” Bridgewater said. “We wanted to make an impact.”

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