BELLOWS FALLS — The old Bellows Falls Garage has been a lot of things in its 100-year history.
The Windham Windsor Housing Trust is about to give the blighted building another identity as it embarks on a project to convert the dilapidated building into 26 apartments, a combination of studios, one and two-bedroom units.
Where once there was a dry cleaners, a sign and woodworking shop, a commune’s soap factory, and in its earliest days, a garage, car dealership and parking garage, there will be affordable housing, including five apartments specifically set aside for homeless people, according to Elizabeth Bridgewater, executive director of the Brattleboro-based housing trust.
The project will add another floor to the building, which is at the northern entrance to the village, and sandwiched between PK’s Irish Pub and a Chinese buffet restaurant.
Windham Windsor Housing Trust is no stranger to Bellows Falls, but it’s been a while since it undertook a project, Bridgewater said. The Exner Block and the Howard Block are both Windham Windsor Housing Trust projects.
During a Zoom meeting earlier this month, followed by an in-person tour of the building, Bridgewater said she had sage advice in the parting words of Connie Snow, the former longtime executive director.
“’Find a project in Bellows Falls,’” Bridgewater recalled.
Bellows Falls residents pay some of the highest percentage of their income for housing of people in the state, which Bridgewater said is a clear indication of the need for more housing.
Work on the $8.7 million project will begin later this month, according to Peter Paggi, director of housing development for the trust.
The building’s distinctive “waffle” ceiling, made out of poured concrete, will be restored and visible in the apartments, Paggi said. Likewise, the sign on the front of the building with its name in concrete will also be restored. The wood siding will be stripped off and returned to its original concrete facade.
The former Bellows Falls Garage is one of the few industrial concrete buildings in the state, and it presents some challenges, Paggi said during the tour.
But the uniqueness of the building and its challenges made it very popular with the architecture community, Bridgewater said, as the trust had seven architects apply to design the building; gbA Architecture & Planning of Montpelier are the designers.
But structural engineers hired by the trust found the building — which is missing most of its windows and plenty of spalling concrete — was structurally sound.
There is pollution in the basement from its history as a dry cleaners, Paggi said, and the project will include installation of a vapor collection system. There will be parking for some of the residents in the basement, Paggi said. Additional parking will be provided by a lot off Canal Street, which is adjacent to the building.
The trust bought the building from local signmaker Frank Hawkins, and the trust was lucky to receive a $25,000 donation from Chroma Technology to meet Hawkins’ asking price, Bridgewater said.
The project includes adding another floor to the top of the building, some of which will include a community meeting room and outdoor patio. Commercial space will be created on the street level to add economic vitality to Bellows Falls.
Funding for the $8.7million project came from People’s United Bank, which is an equity investor and construction lender. Financing came from the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development HOME program, the National Housing Trust Fund, the Vermont Community Development Program, Passumpsic Bank, the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development Downtown tax credit program, and Efficiency Vermont.
As for the popular mural on the north side of the building, which proclaims Bellows Falls to be “a friendly place to hang your hat” Marion Major, director of marketing for the trust, said it now belongs to the trust and it will be saved and displayed in the building’s lobby.
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