The Affordable Housing Committee interviewed the first of two applicants to develop two town sites for housing with Vice Chairman Charles Bonenti.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The first developer to come before the Affordable Housing Committee to discuss a proposal to develop the former Photech Mill property stressed on Wednesday that those plans are preliminary.
The group led by Pittsfield's Berkshire Housing Development Corp. and Boston's Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development was the first to be interviewed by the committee, which plans to make a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen later this month about who to choose for both the Cole Avenue property and former town garage site.
The committee on Thursday will interview representatives from Boston's Arch Street Development, the only other developer to respond to the town's request for proposals on the two sites. Arch Street submitted a proposal that includes subsidized housing on both sites.
The BHDC/Women's Institute group proposes developing only on the former Photech site, where it envisions 46 units of housing in a three-story building that includes one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments.
Actually, it could end up designing apartment buildings, rather than a single structure, and the roofline could be different than the conceptual drawings included in its proposal and projected onto the screen in the Selectman's Meeting Room on Wednesday evening.
"This is a preliminary concept of a concept," said engineer Charlie LaBatt of Williamstown's Guntlow and Associates, which is partnering with the Berkshire Housing group. "When the project is awarded, that's when the real work starts."
The initial concept included in the group's proposal drew fire on Wednesday night from two parties with ties to the adjacent Mill Street neighborhood: resident Kevin Kennefick and Jack Nogueira, who told the committee that he owns one of the Mill Street residences that backs up onto the Photech property.
Both questioned whether the building size and density of development proposed would have a detrimental effect on the neighborhood, and Kennefick reiterated his contention that the site is ill-suited for housing given its propensity for flooding and the possibility of more floods due to climate change.
"If the formula that works here further degrades my neighborhood, and we [already] are the affordable neighborhood, are we helping affordable housing in the town?" Kennefick asked the committee.
Vice Chairman Charles Bonenti tried repeatedly to bring the conversation back to the meeting's stated purpose: getting clarifications from the developer on the proposal as it was written.
Bonenti encouraged Kennefick and Nogueira — and at times members of his committee — to keep their questions within the scope of the questions allowed under the commonwealth's Chapter 30B procurement law.
He said questions regarding the merits of either proposal — Berkshire Housing's or Arch Street's — are better suited for the committee's April 10 meeting, where it will deliberate and, it hopes, make a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen.
But the Berkshire Housing group asked to address Kennefick's and Nogueira's concerns — by saying it is too soon to know exactly what a development would look like.
Both Berkshire Housing's Elton Ogden and the Women's Institute's Mollye Wollahan told the committee that if their group was awarded the contract by the town it would work with abutters to develop a plan that works for the neighborhood.
"We're at a concept stage," Wollahan said. "There's a lot of process here to getting to a development plan that's going to involve the neighborhood, going to involve the community.
"We're both mission-driven nonprofits. This is what we do: enhance neighborhoods."
The bulk of the meeting was devoted to answering a list of prepared questions furnished to the developers by the committee in advance.
Some of the design-specific questions of the committee elicited the same sort of "too soon to say," answers. But the developers were more concrete regarding the committee's follow-up questions about issues like financing and building in a flood plain.
Jack Nogueira makes a point about the conceptual drawing of development plans for the Photech Mill site.
LaBatt told the committee that he had experience doing predevelopment work on the site already, having worked on the Eby Group's proposed assisted living project at the site eight years ago. And he explained some of the possibilities for using fill to get the developable portion of the property up out of harm's way.
Wollahan said efforts to seek financing for the family housing on Cole Avenue will not conflict with applications to fund the Highland Woods senior project off Southworth Street.
Both developments would rely heavily on low-income housing tax credits awarded by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, Wollahan said, but family housing, like that proposed for the Photech site, is a priority for the state.
Highland Woods is applying for tax credits in the current round of funding. The senior project on land being donated by Williams College is being developed by Berkshire Housing and the Women's Institute in a consortium with Williamstown Elderly Housing and Higher Ground. A new development on the Photech site likely would be applying for funds in spring 2015.
"We're going to be tapping similar sources, but the leverage comes in with what the prioritization is," Wollahan said. "We had a special case with Highland woods. ... Elderly housing is not a set-aside priority. But we had a very, specific demonstrated need in Williamstown, so we were able to make that case.
"Family housing is needed, and the more affordability you have, the better your chances. We'll make the strongest case we can."
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