Downtown: What’s next for old Concord DES building?

  • The former Department of Employment Security building on S. Main Street.

Monitor staff
Published: 8/18/2019 5:22:59 PM

The well-known turquoise and yellow paneled building in downtown Concord lives to see another day.

The former Department of Employment Security, built in 1958 on South Main Street, won’t be transferring hands from the city to Dol-Soul Properties, which would have torn down the building to create 125 market-rate apartments and a restaurant.

Although most city officials said they liked the idea, they were uncomfortable with the $3.5 million Dol-Soul was asking for to subsidize the project. On Monday, the city council officially voted ‘no’ by a 9-6 margin.

So what’s next? If not Dol-Soul’s project, then what?

“The hope was, that if not that, something else will come along,” Mayor Jim Bouley said over the phone on Tuesday, the day after the city council vote. “I can tell you that I’ve already been contacted by two individuals who are interested in projects. So I have no fear that there will be other people who will be very interested in developing there.”

Bouley was among those who voted against giving Dol-Soul the financing. Dol-Soul was asking the city to split the $7 million increase in the estimated cost of the project, which was pegged at $30.4 million.

Bouley said part of the reason he said no to the deal was that in the 12 years since he became mayor, Main Street has changed a lot. Back then, there were four lanes of traffic on Main Street, sidewalks were smaller, buildings like the Smile Building and Capital Commons weren’t established.

“When we were in that situation, I think the community was more open to taking most anything that came along because we were really in need of tax-base expansion,” he said. “We’re still in need of tax base expansion, but because of improvements that have been made and I think the investments that the city has made, we can be much more selective in what comes along for development.”

Officials say housing is still a priority for that location on Main Street. They would like to see a mixed-use space, with a retail or a restaurant component on the bottom floor.

“We don’t want to just have a bland, empty entrance to an apartment building,” said At-Large Councilor Byron Champlin. “I will settle for any healthy, viable business on the Main Street ground floor of that building.”

Champlin said it might be nice to have something practical, like a hardware store. Fellow At-Large Councilor Fred Keach thought a middle- to high-end restaurant would fit the bill. Ward 3 Councilor Jennifer Kretovic suggested a seafood restaurant.

Most said having a healthy mix of housing options: luxury, market-rate, workforce and affordable housing would be ideal.

“I would like for us to be looking at ways to have mixed-income developments, not only for multi-unit apartments but also single- and multi-family attached units. We could look at a model where you would have 10% or 15% or 20% affordable housing, which would be integrated into that development,” Ward 2 Councilor Allan Herschlag said.

“The idea that we are looking at a 1960’s model for housing, where we continue to segregate housing by income, it’s been a failed model and its time for newer models that make sense for all the members of the community, not just a few,” he added.

Dol-Soul was proposing a mix of market-rate and luxury apartments. The largest two-bedroom units would have cost around $1,999 a month. The median rent for a two-bedroom unit in Concord is $1,262, according to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority.

Champlin said the Dol-Soul proposal, along with other projects in recent years, shows that people are looking for higher-end housing options in the downtown area.

“I think if there’s an appetite for that kind of housing downtown, we should not turn our back on it,” he said.

Keach agreed.

“I think there’s still some preventional thinking in Concord about, ‘who in the world is going to rent a $2,000 a month apartment?’ Well, Concord has changed quite a bit in the last 30 years, that’s the reality. If you look at how quickly Sacred Heart filled up, if you look at how Remi’s building, the Vegas block, filled up. I mean, there’s a demand there. These developers aren’t coming to Concord on a hunch, they’ve done some research and they understand the market that they are proposing to build in.”

“I think sometimes, our old-fashioned Concord thinking can get in the way of progress,” Keach added.

Kretovic said taking a risk with investing in such a large project – 125 units and a parking garage with 125 spaces – was a bit of a concern. She said she heard from constituents working in the finance industry that said it might be too big of a gamble with the changing economy.

“You have to weigh what the value of the project is,” she said. “Is it better to keep it mothballed to have a project that will really be viable, or do you take the risk that construction begins, and then you wind up with a partially constructed building in your downtown that can’t move forward because financing fell apart?”

Champlin said he’s open to seeing what ideas come. There’s one goal he keeps in mind above all others: continuing to expand the city’s tax base.

“I’m not wedded to a certain number of floors, eight stories, 10 stories, or a certain design,” he said. “What I am wedded to is a project that gets the maximum value out of the site, and adds significantly to the property tax base.”

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