Restaurant/entertainment complex at Davy’s site is moving forward

At last week’s Planning Board meeting, the board voted unanimously to approve the site plan for Cisco Kitchen + Bar, proposed by Stephen Silverstein, the founder of Not Your Average Joe’s and owner of the Black Whale and his partner Jay Harmann of Cisco Brewers in Nantucket.

According to Director of City Planning Tabitha Harkin, they are drafting the decision on the site plan and once it is signed it will be in the appeal period for 20 days. After that, Harkin said they can obtain building permits.

It was the second time the site plan had been before the Planning Board, and based on recommendations from the first hearing and their interaction with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, Steve Gioiosa, President of SITEC Engineering, said some changes were made. Gioiosa was presenting the plan on behalf of Silverstein and Harmann.

The biggest changes to the original plan includes changing the surface of the entertainment area, which will have a space for live music and portable kiosks offering food and beverage service, from a turf surface to sand.

“We settled on going with a sand surface, the idea is to establish more of a coastal feel for the site,” Gioiosa said. “We have a beach area that exists to the south of the site.”

They also worked to make the space more accessible to cyclists, with bike racks offering spaces for 66 bikes, according to Gioiosa, and pulled pavement away from the shoreline to comply with environmental protections.

“I do feel that the Planning Board’s comments took us to a better place,” Silverstein said when reached for comment, saying their recommendations made the site more user and environmentally-friendly.

The Planning Board also said they would support the project as it pursued permission from the Zoning Board of Appeals to put in a seashell parking lot at the site.

At the Planning Board meeting Silverstein did say he and his partner were getting “fatigued with this project” because of the delays which were costing them money.

“The economics and the delays will make this a project that we’re not able to go forward on,” Silverstein said, if they didn’t get the necessary approvals soon.

Since the Planning Board voted to approve the site plan, Silvesterin said, “We fully intend to go forward. We still have to get through the Conservation Commission, we need our final approvals from the DEP, so there are a couple of things hanging out there, but I don’t expect any issues.”

Silverstein said he doesn’t think the approval process he’s gone through is atypical but he decided to say something at the meeting because, “I just needed them that night to not delay us any further, so I made a statement that we need approval otherwise the deal’s going to die.”

Now that they’re receiving site plan approval, Silverstien said, “It’s not a done deal but we are gaining momentum. I would be disappointed and surprised if it didn’t go forward.”

Silverstein said they expect to start site work construction on the estimated $5 million project in January, which would allow them to open in May.

Kathryn Duff, Chair of the Planning Board, said she imagines the project is going to be quite successful and told Silverstein at the meeting “I love how the plans were updated, really nice job.”

However, Duff did bring up a concern about pedestrian safety since they will be leasing a parking lot three blocks away for overflow and event parking.

“We’re proposing a deep use on this site and we need to think of many people walking from a parking area that’s three blocks away,” Duff said.

One of the conditions that the Planning Board added to their approval was that the applicant works with the Department of Public Infrastructure on delineating the pedestrian path from the additional parking area to the site.

Ward 6 Councilor Joseph Lopes attended the meeting and said he doesn’t see any traffic issues arising from the project.

Lopes said he had neighborhood meetings to discuss the project and said “Not one of the neighbors expresses any concerns related to [pedestrian travel to the parking area]. Their main concern was no parking on the west side of East Rodney French Boulevard.”

Lopes said he is already working with the appropriate groups to get no parking signs on that side of the street.

The neighbors of the site have been supportive, Silverstein said.

Something was going to go on that site, Silverstein said, and “The neighbors have decided that this operation under my oversight is the best it can be.”

The site will be based on Cisco Nantucket, and Silverstein said, it’s just a place where everybody feels good, with music, food, beverages, and sunshine.

“If Jimmy Buffett were to open a place, this is kind of what it would l like,” Silverstein said of the New Bedford project. “Sand and flip flops and fish sandwiches, outdoor cooking with pigs on rotisseries, and lobsters steaming, and oysters being shucked.”

Original story here.

A “Capitol” investment in New Bedford’s north end

By Steven Froias

NEW BEDFORD, MA – There may be no building more poignant on the urban streetscape than a former movie theater shorn of its original purpose and left to fend for itself in a world which has relegated it to oblivion. These noble structures dot the landscape of cities across America as symbols of obsolescence – yet retain a powerful hold on the collective imagination and help form the emotional infrastructure of any given place.

The former Capitol Theater in New Bedford, Massachusetts is just such a building. Its position in the city’s history as a destination location and community incubator on the commercial corridor Acushnet Avenue is legendary.

But its role into the future has long been in doubt.

Until now.

THE CEDC BUYS THE CAPITOL THEATER

The Community Economic Development Center (CEDC), a non-profit organization dedicated to enabling opportunity for all segments of society, has recently purchased the former Capitol Theater. The CEDC has also entered into a partnership agreement with Waterfront Area Historic League (WHALE), which will rehabilitate the building for adaptive reuse. Together, the two will return it to center stage in the civic life of the City of New Bedford.

The impressive effort will see the Capitol Theater repurposed into office space, affordable housing units, street level retail and a new home for the CEDC with enhanced economic development and vocational programming. When complete, the $5.7 million project will prove transformative in scope for this revitalizing north end neighborhood.

“There’s a reason theaters occupy a hallowed place in preservation history,” explains WHALE Executive Director Teri Bernert. “They were and are centrally located to have maximum impact on a city’s commercial and cultural well-being. The Capitol Theater is a perfect example of that in the past, and now into the future.”

An initial feasibility study for the project was funded with a Local Initiatives Support Corporation grant. LISC is one of the country’s largest organizations supporting projects to revitalize communities and bring greater economic opportunity to residents, according to its website, lisc.org.

When the economic resilience of the property and project was judged sound, the CEDC then secured Community Preservation Act Funding in 2019 in the amount of $350,00 to help purchase the Capitol building, which sold for $450,000. The application for CPA funding was the first in the City of New Bedford to utilize those funds for a project that includes affordable housing.

REPURPOSING HISTORY FOR THE FUTURE

WHALE’s mission is to foster historic preservation and continued use of the city’s architectural heritage to enhance community and economic vitality in New Bedford. The non-profit development corporation accomplishes this through the restoration and reuse of historic structures which provide commercial development, affordable housing to low and moderate income individuals and families, promotes arts and culture, and educates on the importance of the historic and architectural culture of New Bedford’s diverse people.

WHALE entered into the partnership with the CEDC after completing its usual feasibility assessment for any project. The conclusion was reached that not only was the project feasible, but also necessary to further promote the CEDC’s mission in the north end of the city.

The Community Economic Development Center, currently located at 1285 Acushnet Avenue, fosters economic justice in the local economy through people-centered development, with a focus on community members who have recently immigrated here. They connect youth and adults to skill-building opportunities and resources. They also help foster community networks and collaborations to promote cooperative action for social change. The CEDC will relocate to a refurbished Capitol and expand their efforts when construction is complete.

“Ensuring that everyone in New Bedford is engaged in every facet of its economic and civic life is our primary goal,” says Corinn Williams, Executive Director of the CEDC. “With this project, we can realize that mission for years to come while anchoring Acushnet Avenue in the city’s future as well as its past.”

Preliminary plans include offering a mix of programs in an opportunity center that can accommodate demand and meet the needs of the diverse North End population. Uses under consideration for this center include textile and culinary incubator spaces, arts and culture studios and workshops, and vocational training programs in Spanish. The greater Acushnet Avenue neighborhood has a large population of Central American, Latino and Hispanic residents who are critical to stabilizing urban areas.

The entire project will also include six retail storefronts and six affordable apartments. Several of the retail locations have already drawn interest; future tenants may include a Vietnamese restaurant and an attorney’s office, joining an existing bodega. When complete, the project will, in effect, return the building to its former prominent place as a commercial destination.

THE CAPITOL TAKES CENTER STAGE ON THE AVE

The Capitol Theater building at 1418-1440 Acushnet Avenue was constructed in 1920 in an early twentieth-century American commercial style. It is a two-story brick building and was originally designed as a multi-use building to include street-level storefronts, second-floor office spaces, and a single-screen, 1500-seat movie theater.

According to research compiled by WHALE, The Capitol Theater building contributed both to the growth and development of the twentieth-century entertainment industry and to the rapid late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century development of the Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor, affectionately known as “The Ave” in New Bedford.

As several mills opened to the north of the old city boundaries of development, hundreds of houses were built along the intersecting streets of the thoroughfare, and hundreds of businesses opened and developed in turn along “The Ave” to provide services and entertainment to the growing population.

The Capitol Theater was constructed for Allen-Charrette, Inc., a local theater company owned and operated by theater proprietors George W. Allen, Jr. and Thomas J. Charrette. Today, the building still bears their names in concrete on the facade of the building.

Much of the block has been vacant since the theater closed in the mid-1970s, and the second floor of the commercial block has been largely vacant since the 1970s/80s. Some of the first-floor storefronts have been occupied until more recently, but four out of the six storefronts are currently vacant. A redemption center is located in one of the storefronts and uses the vacant theater as warehouse space, and a market is located in another storefront.

The commercial block section has undergone a patchwork of interior renovations, and the building has suffered overall from vacancy, lack of maintenance, and, particularly in the theater block section, considerable water infiltration. The building currently ranges from fair to very poor condition.

Still, the Capitol Theater is one of only a few surviving theater buildings in New Bedford. While over twenty theaters opened here during the first quarter of the twentieth century, the Capitol Theater building is one of only five surviving theater buildings in the city, and one of only two located in the north end. (The other is the former Strand Theater, now also under WHALE’s care and under renovation for use as a fully-functioning Cape Verdean Cultural Center.)

The Capitol Theater’s location on Acushnet Avenue is significant as you travel the street. It’s renovation will have a large visual impact on the streetscape. Yet, it is the project’s social and economic impact which will make it transformative in this neighborhood, as WHALE well knows from its impeccable planning before beginning any project.

A Capitol Theater restoration deserves a capital fund-raising effort, and 2020 will be devoted toward bringing this vision to life on “The Ave.” In addition to historic tax credits, additional CPA funding and other preservation funding, an appeal will be launched for private donations.

The CEDC is one of a handful of community development centers that was chosen by Massachusetts to receive tax credit allocations. What this means is that as a donor of $1,000 or more, you will receive a 50% state tax credit on top of the federal tax deduction. Effectively, a donation of $1,000 is reduced to an out-of-pocket $325 contribution due to this tax provision.

WHALE, too is a beneficiary of this tax credit. In partnership with the CEDC on the Capitol Theater project, a variety of fundraising measures and appeals will help each reach their goal of a restored Capitol Theater community hub for New Bedford’s north end within two years.

Demolition of St. Anne’s set as city breaks ground on public safety center

 

NEW BEDFORD — A commanding South End corner, once home to St. Anne’s Church, will soon be transformed into a hub for fire, police and ambulance services.

Mayor Jon Mitchell, members of the City Council and leaders of the city’s public safety services held a ceremonial groundbreaking Monday for the South End Public Safety Center at 890 Brock Ave on the peninsula.

“This is a real mark of the city’s deciding to raise the bar for itself, to … build a first-rate public safety facility in a very important part of the city,” Mitchell said.

The 25,000 square-foot building will stretch from the corner of Brock Avenue and Ruth Street back to Salisbury Street, allowing fire trucks to enter from the rear. Trucks will exit directly onto Brock Avenue from four garage bays. A fifth bay will house an ambulance.

“The Ruth Street neighborhood has suffered for many decades, especially after Saint Anne’s Church closed over two decades ago,” Mitchell said. “It’s become less stable. Although in the last few years it has certainly become more stable and more safe, this … project will work very well to be an anchor for the neighborhood, in a neighborhood that needs that kind of anchor.”

The city will consolidate five deteriorating public safety buildings into one, at a price of $19 million. The cost to replace the buildings separately would top $30 million, the mayor said.

Workers are scheduled to begin demolishing the old Catholic church and school within weeks.

The city opened the former church to visitors at yesterday’s ceremony. Most of the pews and religious artifacts had been removed.

The Diocese of Fall River closed St. Anne’s in 2004 and combined the parish with St. James’ Church on County Street, which is now called Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish at St. James Church. It has been vacant since.

Among the city services that will move to the new facility are fire stations 6 and 11. Station 6, located at 151 Purchase St., dates to 1882; and Station 11 at 754 Brock Avenue to 1907 — “both terrific buildings, but both past their prime,” Mitchell said.

New Bedford has not built a new fire station since the 1950s.

Outgoing Fire Chief Michael Gomes said he advocated for updates at the new building that would put firefighters’ safety at the forefront — things like separating fire-contaminated materials from personnel space.

Of the city’s seven fire stations, four are so old they were designed for fire apparatus drawn by horses, he said.

Mitchell said the plan for a combined public safety center stems from a 2015 study the city commissioned a few years ago from FACETS Consulting, which recommended consolidating the two South End fire stations.

The new facility will allow first responders quick access to numerous points in the southern part of the city, and residents will take comfort in having a police presence in the neighborhood, he said.

New Bedford Police Chief Joseph Cordeiro was not able to attend the ceremony, but Deputy Chief Paul Oliveira delivered thanks on behalf of the departments. He said the existing South End substation is inadequate.

“This is a blessing for our officers, and we appreciate all the effort and time that’s gone into it,” he said.

The facility will hold six municipal functions: fire, police, emergency medical services, emergency management, fire prevention and animal control.

It is projected to open in the first half of 2021.

In addition to police and fire stations, the new structure will replace the former Fire Station 3, which now houses animal control and the Emergency Management Office, as well as 1204 Purchase Street, which houses the Fire Department’s Fire Prevention Division.

“This is going to be first-rate — because that’s what New Bedford deserves,” Mitchell said.

Original story here

‘Our link is just the creative community’: 3rd EyE Open Hip Hop Festival takes over Downtown New Bedford

If you were walking through Downtown New Bedford on Saturday, you might have been confused by what you saw. 3rd EyE Open Hip Hop Festival not only had break dancers, but also everything from graffiti artists giving demonstrations to farmers selling sunflowers to families playing miniature golf.

“Just the sight of alpacas walking around the hip hop stage is so cool to see,” Allison Faunce said.

Faunce is one of the founders of Southcoast Open Air Market (SOAM) and she teamed up with the organizers of 3rd EyE Open to host the market in Custom House Square during the festival.

While the combination of a hip hop festival and a market with alpacas; farmers; and vendors selling pottery, soaps, and other artisan craft goods may seem odd to some, to Faunce it makes perfect sense.

“I think our chain or link is just the creative community,” Faunce explained, “Creativity comes out in so many different forms.”

$15M-plus building slated for Union Street in downtown New Bedford

Downtown is well on its way to getting a noticeable addition.

A proposal to build a five-story, $15 million to $17 million mixed commercial and residential building at the corner of Union and North Second Streets has received the necessary permits from the Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals, and the Historical Commission, according to City Planner Tabitha Harkin.

“It’s a project we support because it adds residential density to the downtown, will add some retail space on the ground floor, and it has an architecturally appealing design,” said Mayor Jon Mitchell. “It remains to be seen whether the developer can finance the project, but it’s certainly one that we support because it fits with what we’re trying to do along the Union Street corner.”

Constructing the proposed 42,650-square-foot building would require the demolition of several single-story buildings currently located at the site on the corner of Union and North Second streets. The demolition permit still needs to be approved, said Harkin.

“All the one-story buildings on the property are just old retail buildings; they have no historical significance to them and they are in very poor condition,” said Michael Galasso, executive director of the New Bedford Development Corporation and the project’s developer.

The five-story building constructed in their place would have 42 residential rental units with a cafe/restaurant and coworking space on the ground floor, according to Galasso.

The residential units will include microunits, studios, and one- and two-bedroom apartments, said Galasso, and five of them will be completely handicap-accessible.

“This project is intended to provide housing for the downtown workforce, that is our main market,” explained Galasso, “We see that as a growing market.”

One of the reasons the market is growing, said Galasso, is because more office space is being leased downtown and the offshore wind industry will be bringing in new workers.

The rates for rent have not yet been decided, but Galasso said a portion of the building is going to be affordable housing and the rest will be market-rate.

When reached for comment about the project in her ward, Councilor Dana Rebeiro said, “I’m interested to see if the affordable housing is forever or just for the first three years and what they consider ‘affordable.’”

In addition to the affordability of the housing, Galasso has to consider how the building will fit in with the historic nature of the city’s downtown.

Galasso said the brick facade, the size of the windows, the scale of the building, and material they plan to use are all in keeping with the downtown aesthetic.

“We wanted a building that had some modern feel to it, but was done in a very historic way,” he said.

117 Union Historic Comm Presentation by Standard-Times on Scribd

The modern aspects of the building will include a contemporary design of the interior with a community kitchen and patio overlooking the harbor on the fifth floor, said Galasso, and microunits that are fully furnished with high-end amenities (including kitchenettes).

The design is also meant to encourage people walking by the building to come inside.

“It’s very important that the first floor is very transparent so people that are walking by would get excited and want to come in whether it’s the lobby area or restaurant,” Galasso said.

He referenced the Seaport District in Boston as inspiration for the design, that also includes outdoor seating for its cafe.

Another proposed modern aspect of the building is resident access to a shared electric vehicle and a bike-sharing program, said Galasso.

The current plan only includes the construction of one handicapped parking space, even though a residential building this size would normally require a total of 106 parking spaces.

The proposal received a special grant for reduction in parking, according to Harkin, because “there’s ample parking downtown” with the parking garages.

Rebeiro said she is also concerned about the effect of adding people in what she described as an already dense area, but she did say she likes the car and bike sharing ideas.

“I think it takes away from the problem of too many cars parking downtown,” said Rebeiro.

Mitchell said he doesn’t think parking will be a problem for residents, “The city in the weeks ahead will announce a new parking study that will really pave the way for better parking management in the long run, that will emphasize the use of the garages.”

Going forward the developer has to close the purchase of the properties on Union and North Second streets, which he said he expects to do by the end of this week, and look for financing for the project.

Galasso said the project includes redeveloping the Moby Dick building next door into 8 studio apartments and a restaurant. He still needs to go through the permitting process for that part of the plan.

Once the project is financed through a “combination of conventional financing using some tax credits and funds from the city and from the state,” which Galasso said will take six months, construction on the new building will begin.

Galasso said they’re aiming to complete construction by the end of 2020/early 2021.

“This is potentially a real catalyst for downtown to create millennial focused-housing… and activate a street corner that has been inactive for a long time,” said Harkin.

“We really wanted to set the mark high for future development in downtown and I think we’ve really achieved that,” he said.

Follow Kiernan Dunlop on Twitter @KiernanD_SCT

Original story here.

Proposal to turn New Bedford Armory into apartments

By Kiernan Dunlop

The city’s own castle, the New Bedford Armory, may have a chance at a new life after sitting unused for nearly two decades.

Winter Real Estate Investors has submitted a proposal with the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance to turn the state-owned buildings into apartments and storage units, while maintaining their historical features, according to WREI President Gregory Winter.

The state held an open request for proposals for the property, 989 Pleasant St., that were due in April. WREI was the only company to respond.

The armory was opened in 1904; it consists of the castle-like headhouse, a drill hall, an operations maintenance shop, and a garage. The building housed some form of the Massachusetts National Guard for most of its history, but was closed by the state in 2003.

Since then, the state has put the building up for auction at various times, as previously reported by The Standard Times, but none was successful.

WREI’s proposal would redevelop the headhouse into nine apartments, according to White: two studios, three one-bedrooms, three two-bedroom, and one three-bedroom.

Winter said rent would range from $1,000 to $2,100 per month based on their size.

The drill hall and operations maintenance building would be transformed into self-storage facilities. The proposal states “the drill hall’s dimensions work very well for this adaptive re-use while allowing for the preservation of the historical exterior.”

Since the proposal was submitted, however, Winter has said, “we’ll be studying very hard during the due diligence whether self storage is in fact going to work.”

Due diligence is a 90-day period where the developer is allowed to enter the site and determine the feasibility of the plans.

Winter said during that time they will decide if the building can structurally handle the weight incurred by storage units and if the site is identifiable enough to draw in customers.

If WREI decides to move forward with the storage units, Winter said the two buildings would house approximately 270.

The garage would be used for parking for armory residents.

Since the headhouse was vacated in 2003, it has experienced significant damage to the interior, most of which was caused by a fire in 2009.

“Water has been soaking the wooden structure for over 10 years,” said White, “and that’s led to pretty significant concerns as to whether (we’re) going to be able to keep the structure or do a total gut rehab.”

Winter said they submitted a total budget of $8.7 million, but now says “we’re going to spend more than that by a pretty handsome margin based on what we’ve learned about the conditions of the building.”

When asked why he decided to take on the project, Winter, whose resume includes the renovation of the Prudential Center in Boston, said, “I think it’s a beautiful historic building and I like working on challenging projects; this project presents more than its fair share of challenges.”

Winter won’t be taking on those challenges alone, Cruz Companies will act as the construction manager, DBVW Architects of Providence as the preservation architect, and various others will act as engineers and consultants for the project.

John Cruz, the president of Cruz Companies, said, “for me this was a golden opportunity to start the base of the construction division in the New Bedford area.”

They plan to open up a construction office in New Bedford as part of a larger plan for the company to do more in the Southeastern region of the state, said Cruz.

He also explained that he loves working on historical buildings.“I particularly think that one of the reasons New Bedford is going to make a comeback is because it’s a city that hasn’t lost its historic fabric.”

The armory project will require working with the city and state to receive historic preservation, new market, and housing development incentive program tax credits, according to White.

White’s Permitting Attorney, John A. Markey Jr. explained it’s still too early to know what city departments will be involved in the process, but it could possibly include the Historical Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals, Planning Board, and City Council.

Markey said going forward they want to work closely with the mayor, City Council and state legislators.

State Sen. Mark Montigny has supported the redevelopment of the armory in the past and “is encouraged by the most recent developer’s interest,” according to spokesperson Audra Riding.

Mayor Jon Mitchell said WREI’s proposal is “good news” in a statement and that the armory “is an architecturally significant building that holds an important place in the city’s history.”

“I also appreciate the information Winter Real Estate has provided to city staff about their plans for the armory,” said Mitchell, “and we look forward to working more with them as the project progresses.”

If everything goes according to WREI’s proposal, the redevelopment of the armory could be completed as early as February 2021.

Follow Kiernan Dunlop on Twitter @KiernanD_SCT.

Original story here.

Council approves $1.5 million for 17 Community Preservation Act projects

Posted May 12, 2019 at 5:10 PM
Updated at 9:39 AM

City Council voted to fund 17 Community Preservation Act projects last week, totaling $1.5 million.

The funding included $75,000 for the Sgt. Sean Gannon Memorial Playground at Campbell Elementary and $350,000 for the Capitol Theater restoration, which would help transform the 1920 theater into affordable artist-based housing with a community welfare center.

Two of the projects that were being funded were called into question by Councilor-at-Large Naomi Carney at Thursday’s meeting: $250,000 for the rehabilitation of the Butler Flats Light and $40,000 for a house at 29 Seventh St.

“Personally, I do have a problem when community preservation money goes to private individuals,” said Carney. “Not that their projects aren’t worthy.”

Carney asked the council to vote to cut the projects from the funding order.

Grants available for projects celebrating diverse communities in New Bedford, Fall River

Proposals should be reflective of the needs and interests of the populations the applicants wish to serve, according to a news release. A minimum of $100,000 will be available for projects that emphasize and celebrate the cultural expression of ethnically diverse communities in Fall River and New Bedford. Projects are to be completed or significantly underway by December and applicants must be a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit, municipality, or educational institution. Grant requests can be a maximum of $20,000.

“This is an especially exciting grant round for the Community Foundation, as through it, we seek to elevate and celebrate the richness of having so many cultures in Fall River and New Bedford. Inherent in our local and our American experience is the robust diversity that makes our communities vibrant and great places to live; and we are excited to support that through these grants,” said John Vasconcellos, President of the Community Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts, in a statement.

Concerts, exhibits, festivals, performances, speakers/presentations, and visual arts are just some of the examples of projects they will accept for this Cultural Expression grant. The Creative Commonwealth welcomes artistic risk-taking and diversity of creative experiences and audiences.

Interested applicants can access the Letter of Interest at https://goo.gl/1UTHHP. Completed Letters of Interest are due by midnight April 5, and potential applicants should direct questions to Rayana Grace, Arts & Culture Program Manager, at 508-996-8253, ext. 203, or rgrace@cfsema.org. For a detailed timeline of this grants process and for more information regarding eligibility, visit https://www.cfsema.org/about-us/creative-commonwealth#G5.

Lawmakers pitch 5-point bill to lift struggling Gateway cities

BOSTON — You’ve likely heard about the housing crisis in eastern Massachusetts, with too few units available and prices always on the rise.

But a second housing crisis, one with effectively opposite circumstances, lurks across much of the rest of the state. In former industrial cities hit by economic challenges such as New Bedford and Worcester, vacant and blighted properties remain, home prices are depressed and federal development grant dollars are shrinking.

New legislation filed by members of the Gateway Cities Legislative Caucus, based on research by MassINC and the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, aims to address those problems. The bill proposes a combination of state funding and initiatives that supporters say will help towns and cities stabilize distressed areas.

“Everyone here who’s been to a gateway city or lives in a gateway city knows that there’s much more to us than just our downtowns or our Main Streets,” said Sen. Brendan Crighton, who sponsored the legislation last week alongside Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford. “There’s really an opportunity to change these neighborhoods.”

The bill has five key components designed to reverse damaging economic trends.

The proposal would double the annual cap of the Housing Development Incentive Program to $20 million and create a “spot blight rehabilitation program” to help cities address residential properties that have been left vacant by landlords or developers. It also suggests establishing a housing commission specifically to study weak markets, ensuring the Massachusetts School Building Authority considers neighborhood vitality when weighing proposals, and requiring the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development to create a capacity building initiative.

“These neighborhoods are key to our success,” Cabral said. “We think by targeting these five levels, we can accomplishment a lot in our cities and towns.”

Speakers also suggested that vacant, blighted properties could in some cases be taken by eminent domain and converted to housing units or businesses. They pointed to Baker administration efforts to find modern functions for underutilized properties as a positive first step, but said further effort is needed.

The proposal is built on a report by MassINC, a nonpartisan think tank, and the MACDC completed earlier this year. Representatives from the groups joined lawmakers Wednesday to promote the bill, where copies of the 24-page report were handed out.

“It really comes back to neighborhood policy that we’ve been lacking in some way since the federal government walked off the job,” said Ben Forman, executive director of MassINC’s Gateway Cities Innovation Institute. “These neighborhoods are the greatest assets to our cities.”

Authors of the report found several indicators that lower-income neighborhoods across the state face key structural challenges. Since 2000, for example, the number of residents in areas with 40 percent or higher poverty rates has doubled. So-called “gateway cities” have seen a decrease in federal and state funding for public works and community development in recent decades as well.

Another key area affected is real estate. In Boston, home values have increased 46 percent since 2006, the report found, while values in Fall River, Fitchburg and Worcester all decreased 15 percent over the same timespan.

″(The report) brings out in stark detail a phenomenon all of us are feeling: an economy that is increasingly vacuuming our outlying regions, our outlying cities, of opportunity and job growth and is concentrating job creation in the Boston corridor alone,” said Sen. Eric Lesser, who spoke at Wednesday’s event. “Ultimately, that’s not sustainable.”