BELLOWS FALLS — The Windham Windsor Housing Trust on Thursday revealed its revised plans for the old Bellows Falls Garage, saying it had listened to the public about its concerns.
The 27-unit project last month had undergone a substantial revision from its original plans, and the housing trust now plans on demolishing all but the historic Rockingham Street facade and building a new timber frame structure behind it. The housing trust has made additional revisions in response to public comments, said Elizabeth Bridgewater, the executive director of the housing trust.
The costs of rehabilitating the 100-year-old concrete structure were too great, and were the reason behind the substantial revision, Bridgewater said.
“It’s very important to hear community feedback,” she said.
Ironically, she said, the project now will do a better job of preserving the historic Art Deco Bellows Falls Garage facade, since it won’t have to be covered with insulating materials and recreated.
Bridgewater said the trust’s architect, gbA Architects of Montpelier, had made changes in response to local concerns, including adding back retail or community space on the street level.
She wouldn’t make firm commitments on other requests posed during the Thursday afternoon Zoom meeting, which was attended by close to three dozen people.
The Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance made several suggestions, as did Walter Wallace, the town of Rockingham’s historic preservation coordinator.
Many people praised the housing trust for tackling the derelict building, which is located on the north end of the downtown business district, and for providing more affordable housing for the Rockingham-Bellows Falls area.
Megan Applegate, the executive director of Parks Place, and Barbara Ternes, the retired executive director of Parks Place, said it was so important for the Windham Windsor Housing Trust to be involved in Bellows Falls to bring more and better housing to the community.
“There’s not enough safe, affordable housing to go around,” Applegate said.
Bridgewater said the trust is making Bellows Falls and Rockingham a housing priority, and not just the Bellows Falls Garage project.
A disproportionate number of Bellows Falls residents pay more than 50 percent of their income on housing, she said, far higher than the statewide average.
Parks Place is a social service clearinghouse, and Applegate said that at least a half dozen families are in her facility every day seeking help with housing and meeting with counselors.
The need for housing is enormous in Bellows Falls, she said.
A few people asked questions about the impact on downtown parking, since the revised project eliminated parking in the basement of the building, which at one time was a parking garage in the early days of the automobile era.
Peter Paggi of the housing trust said while there wouldn’t be parking within the building, there would be 11 spaces immediately adjacent to the building on land owned by the trust. He said that was a gain of two spots.
Bellows Falls business owner Jennifer Gurley questioned the parking requirements, noting that her building had been required to have a designated parking space per apartment.
Elijah Zimmer of the Downtown Bellows Falls Development Alliance read a letter that the downtown group had sent the housing trust, asking that it follow U.S. Department of Interior historic preservation requirements even if the building isn’t technically in a historic district.
The boundaries of the district are a short distance away.
Bridgewater said the trust had checked with state historic preservation officials and again learned the building is a “non-contributing” building to the downtown historic district, largely because of its advanced state of deterioration.
Zimmer also urged the trust to include direct access to the street for the proposed commercial space on the street level, noting the current access through a lobby was not conducive to retail operation.
Despite the requests, Zimmer said the downtown group was “really excited about the project,” a view echoed by many who attended the virtual meeting.
Wallace, the town’s historic preservation coordinator, said the color of the siding was not in character with the original building, and he urged Bridgewater and her architects to choose siding that is light in color or grey, rather than a “rusty” look.
Architect Gregg Gossens said he had chosen the steel siding, which will acquire what he called a “patina” over the years, to match the industrial structures nearby on The Island, including the old Depot Street Bridge.
As for the parking concerns raised, Paggi said the housing trust would sign lease agreements for the other necessary parking spaces, and would give the vouchers to the building’s tenants.
There was conflicting information about whether the project has a permit from the town, with Paggi saying the trust received a zoning permit last winter. Last week, Rockingham Zoning Administrator Chuck Wise said the project did not have any local permits.
With the changes, the project will be resubmitted for a new permit, Paggi said.
Longtime resident Robert McBride, who lives on Canal Street, very close to the old building, said he was delighted with the idea that it would be renovated and provide additional housing.
McBride, who has been involved with many downtown projects over the years, listed how much change has taken place in downtown Bellows Falls in the past 30 years. Bellows Falls is a lively, developing community, he said.