BF garage

Tim Morton and Diane Shamans, of Rockingham, look around the inside of the Bellows Falls Garage during a walk-thru tour of the building in October 2020.

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BELLOWS FALLS — The Rockingham Select Board approved a revised state grant application to support the proposed Bellows Falls Garage housing project Tuesday.

The Windham Windsor Housing Trust had already received a $243,000 grant from the state last July, but it needs an additional $50,000 to help bridge the funding gap because of problems encountered with the old garage in downtown Bellows Falls. The current proposal would build 27 new apartments at 115 Rockingham St.

Elizabeth Bridgewater, the executive director of the Brattleboro-based housing group, said the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development had requested a revised grant application because of the substantial changes to the project since it was originally proposed.

Instead of rehabilitating the old deteriorated concrete Art Deco structure on Rockingham Street, the housing trust will have to tear it down, with the exception of its facade and a small portion of the north and south walls, she said.

The housing trust faced a $4 million budget gap, she said, forcing the organization to rethink the project.

She said the construction estimate was “a pretty big surprise to us” and prompted the dramatic rethinking of the project.

During Tuesday’s grant hearing before the Rockingham Select Board, held both in person and online, Bridgewater and Peter Paggi of the housing trust explained the changes and the problems with the 100-year-old buildings that led to those changes.

Gaetano Putignano, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, told Bridgewater that both his parents had worked in the building, and while he was supportive of the project, he had questions, including the retail space in the building and parking.

Instead of rehabilitating the old concrete, the trust plans on building a steel and wood frame structure, she said.

The additional $50,000 in state grant will help bridge that gap, she said.

Several townspeople who attended the hearing praised the project for providing much-needed housing in Bellows Falls. Others, while emphasizing they supported the project, asked questions about parking and the availability of retail space in the storefront project.

Bridgewater said that in response to concerns, the trust had restored retail space on the street level, as well as a community space on the fourth floor.

She said the housing trust hired DEW Construction of Williston as its construction manager and spent six weeks reviewing the original project before coming to the decision to tear down the building.

Paggi said that the wood frame would be lighter and thus would allow the housing trust to reuse the original foundation.

To improve cash flow, Bridgewater said an additional apartment was added.

Ironically, she said, the original distinctive facade will be able to be preserved and used, rather than have it largely covered up by insulation. The project’s architects are working to recreate the “look and feel of the windows,” to emphasize the historic look.

“It’s a little bit of a silver lining,” she said.

Select Board member Peter Golec said the BF Garage project was “a very interesting project,” and asked about the fate of the “Welcome to Bellows Falls” sign that is on the north side of the building.

The sign, made by former building owner Frank Hawkins, will stay exactly where it is now, he was told.

Putignano asked whether the project’s engineers had taken core samples of the 100-year-old concrete. “What happened there?” he asked.

He said “a big concern” of the community was the retail space on the street level of the building. And he noted that winter parking was much more problematic than summer parking in the various municipal lots.

The original parking plan called for nine parking spaces in the basement of the building, but the housing trust has purchased a lot next door on Canal Street which will hold 12 spaces, Paggi said. The other required spaces will either come from municipal lots or private leased spaces, he said.

The building is outside of the downtown Bellows Falls historic district and is considered a “non-contributing” building to the historic nature of the village, Bridgewater said.

Resident Elijah Zimmer said the state Division for Historic Preservation was reviewing the proposed changes, since more of the original facade will actually be preserved by the new plans.

The 27 units will be a variety of apartment spaces for low to moderate income people, from $30,000 to $79,000 for a family of four for some of the apartments. Tax revenue from the building will be in excess of $30,000 a year, Paggi said.

In addition to the grant re-application, the housing trust will have to reapply for its local permit from the Development Review Board. No date has been set for that hearing.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.

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