Concord board gives site plan approval for Penacook tannery apartment project

  • An initial rendering of the project, titled Penacook Landing, was developed by Burnell Johnson Architects. Burnell Johnson Architects—Courtesy

Monitor staff
Thursday, October 19, 2017

A plan to bring 54 apartments to Penacook’s former tannery site is now able to seek federal funding.

The Massachusetts-based Caleb Group was given major site plan approval for its 11-35 Canal St. project Wednesday night during a planning board meeting. The Concord city council in May approved the sale of the land to the Caleb Group for the project, which will bring primarily one-bedroom apartments for mostly low-income residents.

Rob Bernardin, director of acquisitions for Caleb Group, said the site approval is a prerequisite for the project to seek federal tax credit funding.

But that approval didn’t come easy for the Caleb Group. For almost an hour, the board debated whether the project’s look would fit with Penacook Village. The three-story building was to have a two-tone vinyl-siding exterior – a prospect some in attendance said didn’t fit with the historic nature of Penacook Village.

“To be blunt, it looks like a 1960s hotel,” said Councilor Allan Herschlag, who stated that he was speaking as a private citizen and not as a city councilor. Herschlag was the only councilor to vote against the sale of the former tannery site in May.

Herschlag had other concerns with the project. He said he thought it could be four-six stories high, with commercial space on the first floor, to better maximize the project’s economic development. He said the purchase and sales agreement with the city stipulates that the Caleb Group plans to build the larger building, which will have 34 apartments, first. The second, smaller building would be built only if market conditions were “favorable.”

“There’s no guarantee the second, smaller unit will happen,” he said, later adding, “I don’t think (the project) enhances the vision for the site in village.”

Matt Walsh, the city’s director of redevelopment, downtown services and special projects, pushed back against Herschlag’s comments, saying the development would create a “handsome” landscape versus the current site, which he described as “frankly, a wasteland since 1987.” Walsh said the look of the project is meant to mirror Penacook’s former mill before it collapsed in the early 2000s. He noted that there are already some buildings in Penacook with vinyl siding.

Walsh also said the Caleb Group plans to plant 40 trees and more than 200 shrubs around the building, and there is also a tentative plan in Fiscal Year 2020 to put a $1.2 million riverside park next to the project.

Walsh also reminded the planning board of the fiscal possibilities tied to the project – when finished, the development would be worth about $3 million and will bring in $115,000 in tax revenue.

But Councilor Byron Champlin, who sits on the planning board, agreed with Herschlag, at least on the aesthetics concern.

“Just because there are a few vinyl-sided places in Penacook Village ... I don’t think that justifies vinyl for a project of this size,” he said. “It can’t escape me as a member of the planning board that it does kind of look like a motel.”

Later, Champlin added: “I’ve become concerned that the folks in Penacook feel they are the red-headed stepchild of Concord,” he said. “We need to do the best job we can to see that the people of Penacook have the best development possible.”

Approval of the project came after Bernardin said he would be willing to work with the city’s staff to explore incorporating natural materials, such as brick, into the project’s design.

The Allied Leather tannery, established in 1942, employed hundreds of people and had a measurable impact on national shoe leather production. But it left behind chemical remnants after it went bankrupt in 1994 that caused the city to deem the lot impractical for private development. The site has been vacant since 1987.

The city has spent 15 years and $4.86 million to clean up the site using mostly federal and state funding. Part of it was sold and developed in 2011; the rest is about 4 acres. The 2.5 acres of developable land went on the market for $540,000 in August 2015. The Caleb Group purchased the site at full price.

The Caleb Group, which owns about 1,000 units of affordable housing on 29 properties, intends to use federal tax credits to finance the project and offer rents below the market rate. The 40 one-bedroom apartments were estimated to cost between $780 and $936 a month, and the 14 two-bedrooms between $936 and $1,123.

Completion of the two buildings is expected to be completed in 2020 and 2022.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)