Top stories of 2023: Housing on everyone’s mind

The Railyards on Langdon Ave are almost completed.

The Railyards on Langdon Ave are almost completed. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

The redevelopment of the former Employment Security building on South Main Street is coming along.

The redevelopment of the former Employment Security building on South Main Street is coming along. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 12-26-2023 10:07 AM

Three numbers put daunting benchmarks on New Hampshire’s housing crisis this year – 23,500 units are needed to meet the current demand. By 2030, the state needs to build 60,000 units. And by 2040, that number grows to 90,000.

It’s been repeated by politicians, housing advocates and developers, alike: The only way to meet this urgent need is to build. Concord is beginning to do that, with several large mixed-use developments in the works.

Aside from proposed projects like the redevelopment of the Steeplegate Mall and new houses along the Merrimack River on land next to the Monitor’s building near Sewalls Falls, state funding through the InvestNH program has also lent a hand for smaller towns to rethink their approach to housing. Come March, several towns will consider updating their master plans, with an eye toward housing.

Mixed-use developments

At Concord’s monthly planning board meetings, a slew of proposals from signage requests to construction extensions typically come before the group. This year, the majority of meetings has also featured conversations about larger mixed-use developments throughout the city.

Considering all stages of a project – including parking, open space and even scaffolding at an active construction site – the board has approved approximately 3,000 homes and apartments across Concord.

This number is largely driven by projects like Monitor Way and the redevelopment of the Steeplegate Mall, which stand to add approximately 1,500 units.

In October, Onyx, a development firm from Needham Mass., purchased the old mall for $18.8 million. In its heyday, more than a decade ago, the site was valued at $80 million.

Onyx also purchased the abutting property, which was home to Regal Cinema, for $4.7 million.

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Now plans are in the works to clear the site and add over 600 apartments while preserving several current tenants. Standalone stores like JC Penney, Altitude Trampoline Park and The Zoo Health Club would remain.

At a planning board public hearing in October where Onyx presented the plans, the developer mapped out that construction could start as early as 2024 and finish by 2026.

A similar proposal is also in the pipeline for the 100-plus acres of undeveloped land near Sewalls Falls in East Concord. Dubbed Monitor Way, the project would add over 900 units at a variety of price points – with workforce housing, market-rate apartments, townhomes and condominiums outlined in project plans.

The site would also house commercial retail stores and a self-storage site.

After Merchant’s Way opened last year, this development looks to capitalize on the area, with the site planned along a new road that would parallel the Merrimack River between Sewalls Falls Road and Exit 17 off of I-93.

At the last planning board meeting of the year, a public hearing was held for another mixed-use site off of Manchester Street, at the former Concord Drive-in, to be developed into nearly 300 apartments, retail space, a gas station and a bank by ROI Irrevocable Trust.

Smaller developments, like the Railyards on Langdon Ave and the redevelopment of the former Employment Security building on South Main Street, are currently under construction and will add a couple hundred units to Concord’s housing stock in the new year.

InvestNH Funds

After the American Rescue Plan Act gave pandemic federal relief dollars to states to address local needs, Gov. Chris Sununu announced a $100 million grant program called InvestNH to accelerate affordable housing development in the state.

In the state budget passed in June, Sununu slightly adjusted program guidelines. For developers who received capital grants to build affordable housing, 20% of the project must have income-restricted units for 10 years, up from an initial requirement of five years of affordability.

In Concord, projects on Sheep Davis Road, Pembroke Road and the second Phase of Penacook Landing, utilized InvestNH funding for development costs.

But in order to build more housing, towns and cities also need to look at their local zoning codes that guide development. With grants through InvestNH, towns like Boscawen and Warner are now reexamining what housing looks like in their community.

In Boscawen, town leaders are working with Central New Hampshire Regional Planning Commission to map out land use, housing and transportation ahead of Town Meeting in March.

Some of this work is technical – with ordinance changes focused on cluster developments and subdivisions that would allow for denser lots. The other part of it is community-oriented – asking Boscawen residents about what they would like to see with new development in town.

A similar initiative is underway in Warner with a new Housing Advisory Committee. Working in conjunction with the town planning board, committee members are also asking Warner residents about their housing stories and revisiting the housing section of town’s master plan, which was last updated in 2011.

All of these initiatives – from rewriting zoning codes to developing new housing in the form of multi-family units and mixed-use larger sites – are positive responses to the state’s larger housing crisis, according to advocates. The combination of solutions piece together a larger response to the growing need for housing and will continue to be a focus in 2024 with a special legislative advisory committee on housing at the state level and zoning changes at the town and city level.

Editor’s note: The Concord Monitor, in partnership with Report for America and the Investigating Editing Corps, is working on a series of stories examining the pressure of property taxes. If you have faced a tax deed or lien or struggled year to year to pay your property tax bill and would like to share your story, please contact reporter Michaela Towfighi at mtowfighi@cmonitor.com.