Barre to Sell Two Parking Lots for $1 to Housing Developer | Housing Crisis | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Barre to Sell Two Parking Lots for $1 to Housing Developer


Published April 22, 2024 at 8:52 p.m.

Barre City Manager Nicolas Storellicastro at the Seminary Street parking lots. - ANNE WALLACE ALLEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Anne Wallace Allen ©️ Seven Days
  • Barre City Manager Nicolas Storellicastro at the Seminary Street parking lots.
Barre city councilors are expected on Tuesday to approve plans for selling two small parking lots for $1 to a developer that wants to build as many as 40 apartments there.

After going public last fall with its unorthodox plan to sell the lots off Seminary Street, the city heard from one potential developer: Downstreet Housing & Community Development, an agency that uses low-income housing tax credits and other programs to build affordable housing in central Vermont.

Downstreet CEO Angie Harbin said on Friday that the project is in its very early stages and will face a gauntlet of permitting and financial reviews. But if it’s approved, Downstreet will work with DEW Construction of Williston to build as many as 40 units of housing on the lots, which are located next to a church in an area of mixed commercial and residential development. DEW would build the apartments and sell the property to Downstreet.

“We are thrilled to see Barre City being thoughtful and creative about how to get more housing,” Harbin said.

Homes are in short supply in Barre, as they are in many Vermont communities. The devastating flooding in July exacerbated the problem. It destroyed an estimated 363 structures containing 517 units of housing, most of them in Barre’s lower-income North End

The shortage is causing so many difficulties for residents and employers that the city is now open to approaches that might have been off-limits in the past, City Manager Nicolas Storellicastro said. The city is also planning to sell two other parking lots and the 0.4-acre Wobby Park, with the stipulation that the spaces be used for affordable and market-rate housing.

Those three properties don't yet have an asking price, but Storellicastro anticipates all will go for well under the appraised value. Wobby Park has a play structure, swings and a picnic shelter.
“The city council is basically at the point where things that might have made people uncomfortable in the past are now getting a different look,” Storellicastro said. “They’ve been really supportive of us with some of our off-the-wall ideas, like listing Wobby Park.”

Supporters said the idea of selling unneeded parking lots came up late last summer and quickly gained traction in the fall.

“It’s a great idea,” City Councilor Michael Deering said. He noted that the Burlington firm White + Burke Real Estate Advisors did a parking study for the city 18 months ago and concluded there was more space than needed. 

“We have these city-owned properties. Why don’t we put them on the tax rolls?” Deering said. He added that the details of the project have already been hammered out with help from the city council and described Tuesday’s vote as a “formality.”

“I have never had a problem finding parking in Barre,” City Councilor Teddy Waszazak said. He plans to vote in favor of the sale on Tuesday. “We can afford to lose a little, especially for housing.”

When it publicized the $1 parking lots, the city sought an applicant that would propose a multiuse design with mixed housing — some market-rate, some affordable and some for people exiting homelessness.

“We didn’t put a lot of parameters on it because we didn’t want to scare anybody away,” Storellicastro said. “If someone had an out-of-the-box idea, we wanted to hear it.”
Selling Wobby Park, donated by a storied local family that still owns a downtown business, Richard J. Wobby Jewelers, would have been unthinkable before last summer’s flooding, Storellicastro said. But now, he envisions relocating the park to a green space on the north end of town that will be left open when flood-damaged homes are removed. The Wobby family supports the plan, he said.

Wobby Park is currently located well above the floodplain — an ideal place for housing. Of course, “being out of the floodplain doesn’t make anyone immune to challenges,” Storellicastro said. He noted that the city's Public Safety Building, located next to Wobby Park, was hit last summer by a landslide caused by a plugged culvert. “But it’s obviously better than building elsewhere.”

The Seminary Street lots are located in the floodplain, but Peter Kelley, DEW Construction’s vice president for business development, noted that the company has had some experience mitigating those issues. In 2019, DEW built the transit center and 30-unit apartment building that stands next to the Winooski River in Montpelier. It was built to be flood-resilient and was not damaged in the July flooding that swamped downtown Montpelier.

“It’s likely the [Barre] project will have some similar characteristics, where the living spaces start on the second floor,” Kelley said.

Both Kelley and Harbin said the $1 cost of the Barre parcels wasn't the only reason the project can go ahead at a time when very few multifamily projects are underway in central Vermont. But it certainly helps.

“Developing housing right now is so incredibly expensive that anything that reduces costs makes the project more viable,” Harbin said. It also helps, she said, that the city has shown it wants housing at that location.

“We want to develop in the areas that matter to the people in those areas,” she said.

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