BARRE — They may not know it yet, but Granite City voters will soon be facing a make-or-break decision involving Barre’s next big redevelopment project.
The city is under the gun to replace 16 units of affordable housing that were demolished to make room for City Place. The solution — a still-evolving project that has been dubbed Summer Street Center — will require voters to weigh in this fall.
Though the special election hasn’t yet been scheduled, Mike Miller, the city’s director of planning, permitting and inspection services, told city councilors this week a vote on the use of money generated by the city’s new tax increment financing district will have to be held by mid-November.
Though the city is a bit player in a redevelopment project that would be financed, built and co-owned by the Central Vermont Community Land Trust and Housing Vermont, the council has committed to making every effort to provide parking for it. At a minimum the multistory building would replace lost housing and create a new ground-floor home for the land trust.
The possibility of relocating the Barre Senior Center to the proposed Summer Street campus remains on the table, though Mayor Thomas Lauzon said grander plans to incorporate a 15,000-square-foot YMCA-type facility are probably out of the mix.
“That’s an idea that has quite a ways to go in terms of its viability,” Lauzon said, suggesting lingering questions about operating costs, coupled with a schedule that can’t wait for answers, meant thinking somewhat smaller than he had originally hoped.
Councilors were told replacing the lost housing isn’t optional and a three-year federal clock started ticking under the Uniform Relocation Act in December. That’s when the last of the residents were forced from two Merchant Street buildings that have since been demolished to make room for City Place.
Land trust Executive Director Eileen Peltier told councilors that to replace the housing, a development team — including representatives of the city, the land trust and Housing Vermont — will have to move swiftly to finalize a design and start locking down financing.
According to Peltier, the first significant funding application must be filed with the Vermont Housing Finance Agency in January. That, she said, means settling on the size of the proposed building by mid-October so a final design can be in hand by December.
Toward that end, Peltier said she was scheduled to meet Wednesday with representatives of the Barre Senior Center in an effort to better assess the organization’s potential interest in relocating to the new complex. Preliminary discussions have included an allowance for 5,000 square feet of ground floor commercial space that could accommodate the senior center.
The city is taking the lead on the parking front, has agreed to deal with potential right of way issues, and must be prepared to apply for a community development block grant on behalf of the project in December.
Peltier said she was comfortable with the compressed schedule given the commitment of a team that includes Lauzon, Miller and City Manager Steve Mackenzie on the municipal side.
“We feel like it’s doable,” she said.
Lauzon was more emphatic.
“We’re going to focus like a laser on this project, and we’re going to get it done, simple as that,” he said. He predicted the project would change the complexion of the neighborhood, upgrade housing and solidify a successful partnership between the city and the land trust that paved the way for City Place.
“We intend to do for Summer Street what we recently did for Main Street,” Lauzon said, crediting the land trust for the role it played in a complex series of land transactions that kept the City Place project on track.
The land trust acquired two Summer Street properties — both home to apartment buildings that would be razed to make room for the complex that is now being discussed.
Though parking is a potential obstacle, the city has reached out to several nearby property owners in hopes of striking a deal with one or more of them. Those conversations are still preliminary but must soon get more serious in order for voters to approve the use of money generated by the city’s TIF district to pay for the acquisition of property for parking.
Miller said the city will likely present voters with a request to purchase as yet unspecified properties in the vicinity of the Summer Street project, as well as two parcels on Enterprise Alley that are needed to create parking for City Place. The initial request, he said, would probably cover only the acquisition costs, and a subsequent vote would probably be needed to pay for developing parking.
Miller stressed all of the money in question would come from revenue generated by increased assessments associated with new development and redevelopment within the TIF district and would not require raising property taxes.
Miller said the message to voters will be simple: “This doesn’t really cost you anything.” He said voters will be told that City Place and Summer Street Center need parking, the city needs the money to give them parking, and the TIF district is the mechanism to get it.
According to Miller, taking advantage of TIF financing to pay for infrastructure improvements needed to accommodate development that expands the city’s tax base is a no-brainer.
“The risk is minimal, and the upside is huge,” he said.
With the brick façade now going up on City Place, a newly rebuilt Main Street, and the planned redevelopment of Merchants Row in the pipeline, Lauzon said, the city has a track record that he hopes voters can appreciate and outside funding agencies can’t ignore.
“We don’t overpromise, and we don’t overreach,” he said. “What we’ve shown in the last 12 months is funds invested in the city of Barre are funds well invested.”
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