Riverwalk Place developer eyes ’55-plus’ affordable units

Despite the snoozer of a headline, this story showed the interesting dynamic between a city’s vision and what the economics allow. What was supposed to be a luxurious new neighborhood along the Merrimack River may now become affordable housing for people over 55. Though some officials have said it is much needed in Manchester, senior housing doesn’t say “hip nightlife” like the economic developers were hoping the previously planned luxury condos would.

Riverwalk Place developer eyes ’55-plus’ affordable units

March 30, 2011

MANCHESTER — The owners of the Riverwalk Place townhouses and proposed mid-rise condominiums are now working on another four-unit townhouse and are considering building a 55-and-over affordable housing development on the scenic riverfront property.

Proposed luxury condo construction next to the Fisher Cats baseball stadium has stalled since the housing bubble burst. Despite the city’s eagerness to jump-start development, the aldermen last week questioned whether affordable housing fit the original vision the city had for the riverfront.

Previous plans called for 40 townhouse units and three mid-rise condominium buildings that held a total of 144 units. Thus far, 24 townhouses have been completed and the mid-rise project never got off the ground.

Newbury Development Group in Exeter bought the townhouse project and land set aside for the mid-rise project in May with the intention of finishing the townhouses, said Economic Development Director Jay Minkarah.

Earlier this year, Newbury Development joined with the Stratford Capital Group based in Peabody, Mass., to collaborate on a new apartment complex for people over 55 that would replace the originally planned garden-style condos.

Joe Falzone of the Newbury Development Group said the 55-plus housing plans are in the initial stages and the Stratford Capital Group is now looking for funding.

According to the Stratford firm profile, the group specializes in securing tax credits and funding for low-income and affordable housing.

“Despite a very difficult economic environment, during 2009 Stratford Capital succeeded in raising over $70 million in equity for eight affordable housing properties representing 1,329 apartment units in seven states,” the profile says.

Talks with city officials about the over-55 project have been positive, said Falzone. But when Minkarah mentioned the proposal to the Special Committee on Riverfront Activities and Baseball last week, it got a frosty reception.

“We never talked about low-income housing down there. We wanted high-end housing,” said Alderman Mike Lopez, chairman of the Riverfront committee. Lopez said he could support an affordable housing development for people over 55 years old, “but I’d have to know the details.”

“It kind of threw me when they were talking about low-income housing,” said Lopez this week. “It’s not fair to those people who (own) the other high-end condos.”

The decision to build the $27.5-million baseball stadium in 2003 was based in part on expectations that new commercial and residential development would bring in millions of dollars in tax revenue. This included the Hilton Garden Inn and a small lot north of the stadium that was purchased by the city in 2009 and converted to permit parking. City leaders have been frustrated by the slow pace of this development along the riverfront, caused largely by the downturn in the economy and housing market. The expected tax dollars have not come through and today the townhouse and mid-rise properties are worth about $1.5 million less than they were in 2009.

The city had a contingency plan to protect taxpayers in case the development did not yield enough tax revenue, but that money is now gone. The original developers, Chinburg Builders, issued letters of credit to the city worth $1.6 million in the event the project hit a snag. The city used up the last of that money in December 2008.

Despite recent setbacks, the new townhouse construction and talk of further development is seen as a good sign, said Minkarah. It also comes as the Elliot at River’s Edge project nears completion of its first phase and will eventually include a medical office building and retail space.

“After a couple years of no activity, they have started work on a group of four townhouses. That’s a very encouraging sign,” Minkarah said.

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