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North Amherst mixed-use project gets go-ahead funding

  • This architect’s rendering shows the North Square at the Mill District, a $47.5 million project proposed for Cowls Road in North Amherst.   SUBMITTED PHOTO



Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 20, 2017

HOLYOKE — A $47.5 million mixed-use project that will provide significant affordable housing in North Amherst, as well as space for between eight and 10 new businesses, will move forward next spring.

The 130-apartment North Square at the Mill District is one of six projects that Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announced Tuesday will be funded by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

Speaking at City Council chambers in Holyoke, Polito said more than $20 million in subsidies and $15 million in low-income tax credits will pave the way for the creation of 511 new rental units across the state, 348 of which will be affordable.

Dara Kovel, president of Beacon Communities Development of Boston, said she is ecstatic that the project is funded, after it missed out in August’s round, when $72 million was awarded.

“We couldn’t be more overjoyed,” Kovel said.

She praised town officials for their supportive role, noting the smooth yet rigorous process to receive a comprehensive permit from the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, under the state’s chapter 40B affordable housing law earlier this year.

The project is to be built on 5.3 acres of vacant industrial land on Cowls Road owned by W.D. Cowls.

Kovel said she anticipates that she will soon be dropping by Amherst Town Hall to pick up the building permit. Groundbreaking is likely to be in March or April, with some site preparation work, handled by Cowls, beginning during the winter months.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that, even though the town provided Beacon a tax break through its affordable housing property tax incentive program, state support was essential.

“Without state funding, this would not be possible,” Bockelman said.

Bockelman was joined at the Holyoke announcement by Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek and Select Board member Alisa Brewer.

“This is a major step forward for our community and sets a high standard for future development in North Amherst,” Bockelman said.

Housing boost

Plans call for 26 of the 130 apartments to be set aside for low- and moderate-income families, people earning up to 50 percent of the area median income. There will also be 22,000 square feet of commercial space that will align with other development in the Mill District that has included the Trolley Barn, a three-story mixed-use building with Bread & Butter restaurant and The Lift salon on the ground level, and the satellite Atkins Farms Country Market.

Polito made her announcement in Holyoke because that is where Way Finders, formerly HAPHousing, will be constructing a project known as Library Commons.

Way Finders Executive Director Peter Gagliardi explained that his company will be renovating three vacant, historic buildings and constructing a new building on an empty lot that will provide 47 affordable and market-rate homes.

“This has been an important labor of love,” Gagliardi said.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said his administration has overseen hundreds of units of both rehabilitated and new housing, and that a previous investment in expanding and renovating the library is prompting spinoff development and reviving a neighborhood.

“Housing is at the core of our renaissance strategy here in Holyoke,” Morse said.

Polito noted the work by Holyoke’s leaders.

“You have momentum. You have energy. You have a lot of great things happening here in Holyoke,” Polito said.

Bipartisanship

Chrystal Kornegay, undersecretary for the Department of Housing and Community Development, called the funding a “surprise round” and observed that state officials wanted to ensure that projects with high readiness and high leverage from their host communities got the financial backing they need.

“We’re really happy to capture these deals that may have had to wait another year to get funding,” Kornegay said.

Other projects funded are in Cambridge, Eastham, Lawrence and Yarmouth.

State Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, said the funding announcement is an example of bipartisanship, in that the Republican administration of Polito and Charlie Baker, like the largely Democratic Legislature, understands the importance of housing.

“Housing for people is critical,” Vega said.

Polito also used the opportunity to advocate for the housing choice legislation that the Baker administration recently filed, which would reward communities that take down barriers preventing housing development.

“We want to relax the decision-making to a simple majority of a body in a municipality to change zoning,” Polito said.

Polito said one of the challenges for the state is lack of affordable housing, workforce housing and senior supportive housing,

Development potential

W.D. Cowls President Cinda Jones, who was present with her brother, Evan Jones, president of Cowls Building Supply, thanked Beacon for its investment and also applauded Mollye Lockwood, formerly vice president of real estate and community development for W.D. Cowls, for bringing the partnership with Beacon.

Jones said she sees the Beacon project as the latest in the regeneration of the Cowls home farm.

“Every generation of the family since 1741 has rebuilt this site to satisfy their generation’s community needs,” Jones said.

The vision includes additional projects on Cowls Road called the Mill District Depot and the potential for development of 12 acres on Sunderland Road that she is calling Mill District West.

Darcy Jameson, senior development director for Beacon, said Beacon will work closely with the Massachusetts Housing Partnership on the project.

The precise breakdown of how the project is being paid for won’t be known until a funding commitment letter is received from the state, likely in January, Jameson said.

The project, she said, depends on federal and state low-income housing tax credits, affordable housing loans and a first mortgage loan from MassHousing.

She noted the town’s role was key.

“North Square was inspired by the town of Amherst’s vision to create new housing, business opportunities and jobs in North Amherst,” Jameson said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.