- Alicia Freese
Roughly one year ago, work began on a worse-for-the-wear boarding house on the corner of Shelburne Road and Lyman Avenue. Then, for no apparent reason, construction stopped. To this day, the place remains a patchwork of plywood and white and cranberry-red insulation. Neighbors and commuters along the busy route have grown curious: What's the hold up? And what happened to the people who had been living there?
The property has belonged to one family for nearly five decades. Beverly and Bruce Richardson bought the house at 441 Shelburne Road in 1971, raising their children and running a daycare center there. According to zoning records, they also tried to start a canoe rental business on the site, but the city denied the application.
Today, the only sign that toddlers once roamed the place is a rocking horse, mounted on a spring and planted in the dirt.
The couple bought the house next door, 435 Shelburne Road, in the early 1980s and built an addition to connect the two buildings. Beverly Richardson intended to start a community care home for the elderly, but, again, city zoning officials denied her application, determining that it "would adversely affect the character of the neighborhood" and strain the sewage system. This time Richardson persevered and, in a settlement agreement, won permission to establish a "convalescent home" for 10 individuals.
The home operated for many years and served more than just the elderly: The Richardsons also began housing people with mental illnesses. The home wasn't state-licensed, but for a while it provided accommodations to people through an arrangement with the Howard Center.
About a year ago, the Richardson's youngest son, Mitchel, acquired the property from his parents. "I don't really know a lot of the details of what was there," he said, when asked about his mother's business during a phone interview last week.
What he did know upon buying the place was that it could use some sprucing up. "The house was kind of in disarray and out of code," he said. "It was an eyesore."
So he started renovating. The job snowballed. "Once you start opening walls, a lot of things are hidden," Mitchel Richardson explained.
At that point he sought guidance from engineering and architecture professionals and decided to convert the 12-unit rooming house into 10 units of multifamily housing, with a 10-car parking lot in the back. On February 2, 2016, Richardson and his architect presented plans to the Development Review Board to get its preliminary feedback.
At that meeting, Richardson offered this account to the board: "We started renovating the property to bring it into compliance. That was my major agenda at the beginning, so we worked with Public Works and got permits, started into it and realized after I got a fair amount into the renovations, I kind of was asking myself, 'What am I doing?'"
DRB members were generally supportive of Richardson's plan to provide a face-lift to a building that had fallen into disrepair. But they repeatedly made one point, summarized by Brad Rabinowitz: "It's all very tight."
In other words, he is trying to squeeze a lot into a small space.
Richardson, who runs an auto repair shop in South Hero, said this is his first time overseeing a housing project. The next step in the zoning process is to submit a formal application for DRB review. Noting that the project is contingent on that board's approval, he said he couldn't offer a timeline for when construction might resume — or conclude.
What happened to the tenants who lived there prior to the project? In the part of the building being renovated, Richardson said, "My parents slowly downsized, so it was already vacant when I took over." Several people, including his parents, still live in the part of the building that hasn't been renovated.
Richardson declined to get specific about who will occupy the building once it's finished. He said he won't seek a license from the state, which is only required for a certain level of community care homes. Nor is it likely that he'll be collaborating with the Howard Center. "There was an issue between my parents and Howard," Richardson said, declining to elaborate. Seven Days reached out to the Howard Center, but had not heard back as of press time.
He suggested that the apartments would be available for anyone to rent but also said that he intends to continue serving people with mental illness. "That's been my mom's passion," he noted. "I'm doing this because I know what makes my parents happy." But, he added, "I know a lot of people say I'm crazy."
Richardson does have at least two tenants locked down: His parents will continue to live on the property in a newly renovated apartment.