New committees to consider Concord’s policies for developers
The city council will spend even more time talking about economic development in Concord this year.
Mayor Jim Bouley plans to draft three new committees of councilors only that could affect city policies on building and redevelopment projects: one on the rollout of the Main Street project, one on the impact fees required for new developments and one on upper-story redevelopment in downtown Concord and Penacook.
“One of the common things that we’ve all heard is that it’s important if we want to expand the tax base, that we look at these buildings and redevelop these upper floors,” Bouley said. “I have heard repeatedly that the city is an obstacle to making that happen, whether it be code or whatever the perception is that we are an obstacle.”
Bouley hasn’t yet made his appointments for those committees, and the future of the Main Street committee is especially murky. That committee would discuss some of the project’s finer points, such as public art to be added to the downtown area – “assuming that the money’s there and the bids are right,” Bouley said.
However, the city received only one offer during its second attempt to find a contractor for Main Street construction. That $13.83 million bid is nearly double the city’s base estimate of $7.1 million, and it is also higher than the one bid that came in during the city’s first request for bids.
Whatever the future for the Main Street project, the mayor’s two other committees are also about what he called “smart growth.”
“There’s this perception at times that the city can be an obstacle to success,” Bouley said. “And sometimes it could be the zoning board, sometimes it could be the planning board, sometimes it could be the city council, sometimes it could be the departments, but there’s this theme that the city can be an obstacle.”
City Manager Tom Aspell said these committees will help clear the way for growth in Concord.
“We’ll have done everything that we can to make sure we’re not an impediment to something good here,” Aspell said.
These committees, he said, will look at Concord’s ordinances and codes to identify ways the city makes development difficult.
One committee will review the impact fees that help cover the city’s costs to expand its services, such as transportation infrastructure, as new homes and businesses crop up. It’s been nearly 15 years since the city decided how to collect and spend those fees, Aspell said.
The other committee will consider redevelopment on the upper floors of downtown buildings by reviewing building codes and input from developers.
“It’s an opportunity for everybody to put their cards on the table and have a good, open, public process about this,” Bouley said.
Concord developer Steve Duprey has opened two new buildings on South Main Street in recent years – the Smile Building opened in 2011, and the Love Building opened last summer on the former site of the New Hampshire Bindery.
But he has also hit stumbling blocks in his attempts to redevelop the New Hampshire Employment Security site on South Main Street. The city is looking for a private partner to transform that outdated building when the state office moves out later this year, but Duprey’s proposal flopped when his key retailer, home decor design studio Company C, pulled out earlier this month.
The future of that site remains uncertain.
“Over the last five or six years, there has been a very good and concerted effort for the city to work very hard to be flexible and find ways to work with the code,” he said. “So while the code itself can sometimes present an obstacle, the city works very, very cooperatively with developers to meet the spirit of the code.”
The city is a transparent partner in development, Duprey said, and very up front about what fees a developer could incur with a project.
“The good thing about Concord is they have a very specific formula for figuring impact fees,” he said. “Many communities don’t have such clear guidance. From my experiences, when the city is working hard to achieve a project, they are working hard to minimize those fees.”
But sometimes the hoops are too many to jump through, Duprey said.
“Most people trying to do redevelopment, it’s a combination,” Duprey said. “The fees, the codes, the cost of doing renovation tends to then push the rent higher than the market will sustain. That’s one reason we were disappointed that we weren’t successful in that first effort on that (Employment Security) building.”
Developer Mark Ciborowski, who owns several downtown buildings, said it is an appropriate time for the city to review both impact fees and building codes.
In his own experience, he said changing the use of a storefront can incur impact fees – and that cost can be prohibitive.
“A lot of times, it can be a detriment to development or to renting possibilities,” Ciborowski said.
Keeping old buildings in compliance with codes can be a challenge to keeping the rent competitive, he added.
“It’s a lot easier to meet codes in new buildings,” Ciborowski said.
While only councilors would sit on these committees, developers like Duprey and Ciborowski would be invited to share their experiences with those groups.
“The city has adopted a code which mirrors the state and national codes,” Duprey said. “Personally, I think for there to be successful development upstairs, there has to be, in some buildings, more flexibility than that code might allow.”
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)