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Assisted-Living Facility, Affordable Housing Building Set to Open in White River Junction

  • Construction is underway at The Village at White River Junction in White River Junction, Vt., on May 9, 2018. The projects aims to be completed in July. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lis Flannery, of Norwich, Vt., puts on a hard hat before a tour of The Village at White River Junction in White River Junction, Vt., on May 9, 2018. The Village is an independent living facility with both memory care and assisted living apartments. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • From left, Lori Harriman, of Wilder, Vt., takes a photogrpah as Brooke Ciardelli, a developer, speaks to Lis Flannery, of Norwich, Vt., during a tour at The Village at White River Junction in White River Junction, Vt., on May 9, 2018. Ciardelli said the first residents should be able to move in by August. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Oscar Marcos, left, and Ryder Boucher, of Green Mountain Drywall, work on windows at The Village at White River Junction in White River Junction, Vt., on May 9, 2018. The room will be used as a community space. The $27 million project that started in January 2017 will be completed by July 1. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The view from the fifth floor at The Village at White River Junction in White River Junction, Vt., on May 9, 2018. The Village, an independent living facility, has 30 memory care apartments and 50 assisted living apartments. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2018

White River Junction — West Hartford resident Roberta Dubrowsky says she would prefer to continue living in her Route 14 home for as long as she can.

“I’m very tied to this house,” Dubrowsky, 77, said this week. She and her wife, who died last year, worked in the community social services field before they retired, so they knew how to prepare for their own golden years. They spent decades retrofitting their home to make it more accessible, and building social relationships with people they could rely on for help as their capabilities waned.

If she does have to leave, she’s considered different backup plans, depending on what type of support services she might need. One option she has considered is a five-story, $27 million assisted-living facility taking shape in downtown White River Junction between the Barrette Center for the Arts and the United Methodist Church.

The Gates Street building, which is set to open in August, and a $4.4 million, four-story mixed-use building developer Bill Bittinger is bringing to the corner of Bridge and North Main streets, are promising to bring new residents like Dubrowsky, and perhaps some change, to White River Junction.

During one of an ongoing series of hard-hat tours for the public, developers Byron Hathorn and Brooke Ciardelli said the assisted-living facility, known as The Village at White River Junction, will be unique to the region.

The fifth floor offers views of five steeples, including the one on top of the train station’s welcome center, where the station’s commerce-shuttling trains once put White River Junction on the map. The key to keeping White River Junction relevant in the future may well be shaped by the current building boom, according to Ciardelli, who said The Village will open its doors in August.

Ciardelli led a group on Wednesday morning through unfinished hallways thronged with stepladders, building materials and whistling workmen, and into a two-bedroom penthouse suite. It’s been rented to a woman from San Francisco, Ciardelli said. She plans to bring her small dog and baby grand piano.

Only a few people have turned in a $1,500 refundable deposit in the two weeks since The Village began accepting applications, Ciardelli said, but more are in the pipeline. They anticipate being full within a year of the opening.

The least expensive units will go for $8,400 a month, while rent on a two-bedroom apartment with a commanding view of the town will cost up to $10,850.

“Not everybody will have the opportunity to consider this as an option. But if you are considering assisted living, you will find this pricing is what you expect,” Ciardelli said. “The amenities will be far beyond what you expect. And the opportunity to live in the village of White River Junction, that is beyond what you would expect.”

Each of the 80 units, including 30 on a floor dedicated to memory care, is equipped with granite kitchenette countertops, large windows with deep windowsills and large closets.

At 90,000 square feet packed onto less than an acre of land, the building will feature outdoor terraces, an artist-in-residence studio, a dog park, a dog salon, a human salon, a community garden, a gym and spa, a pub, an art gallery, a community kitchen for cooking demonstrations and an in-house theater that will pipe its audio feed into individual hearing aids, to accommodate the various hearing capabilities of its eventual guests.

The average cost of assisted living in Vermont is $4,900 (or $5,750 for memory care units), according to the American Elder Care Research Organization. Ciardelli said the pricing at The Village is in line with the existing high-end market offerings; Harvest Hill, located on the Alice Peck Day campus in Lebanon, charges between $3,200 and $9,000 a month.

But perhaps the biggest selling point of The Village, as is so often the case in the real estate market, is location, location, location.

Unlike the assisted living facilities that tend to be sited in a remote field, at The Village, senior residents will be encouraged to integrate into the downtown area by visiting restaurants and shops, or taking in a play; for those who stay inside, the design is referred to as a “vertical Main Street” meant to mimic a variety of neighborhood experiences, while many of the units overlook the actual Main Street outside.

Deanna Jones, executive director of the Thompson Center, which provides services to seniors in Woodstock, said 98 percent of seniors, like Dubrowsky, would prefer to live in their own homes for as long as possible. But, she said, seniors in any living situation find it increasingly difficult to access the area’s attractions.

“(The Village) is a great spot for people to be able to just be a part of the community and not have to worry about transportation to get to them,” she said. “That’s what I see people struggling with a lot. They’d like to be able to get to Northern Stage and it’s a challenge, especially in the winter.”

Dubrowsky said she’s keeping The Village in mind.

“I had a great chat with (developers) Brooke and Byron,” Dubrowsky said. “I like the place. And I like the product. I like what they’re offering. But I’m not ready.”

The West Hartford senior said the pricing was a possible obstacle. If she did, as the business model suggests, sell her home to pay the rent at The Village, she worries she would outlive her means. But there are circumstances in which she could see herself splurging.

“I don’t expect to die,” she said. “But if I had a terminal illness and only had a year to live, let’s say, I would say, ‘What the hell?’ ”

Changing Neighborhood

About a block away from Gates Street, Daron Raleigh and Meghan Place stood chatting on the corner of Main Street and Joe Reed Drive on Wednesday, their sunglasses shielding their eyes from the afternoon sun. Raleigh, 29, who grew up in White River Junction, and Place, 33, of Hartland, both work in the Windsor County State’s Attorney’s Office. Both have seen the change that’s been transforming the downtown area.

“The Windsors, the Rutlands, the White Rivers, the sort of rougher areas, 10 years ago, they were having a hard time, and obviously partly because of the heroin epidemic picking up at that point, but also for regular economic reasons,” Raleigh said. “Some of those places have found solid footing again and some of them haven’t. Springfield (Vt.) is an example of a place that hasn’t really found solid footing, but White River is light years ahead of where it was 10 years ago. ... I’m a big fan.”

“It used to be the Polka Dot was sort of a good representation of what White River Junction was. It was not a lot going on. It’s slower,” Place said, referring to the small family diner that for decades offered cheap and hearty breakfast and lunch items, and may soon reopen as a new eatery. “And now it’s a revival.”

“White River is a place you go to do things, to go out,” Place said. “This definitely draws crowds of people from in town, from other towns.”

Bittinger re-developed Railroad Row in White River, and now his Bridge and Main project will put 17 residential units and commercial space onto a small land parcel that has been vacant since the former White River Amusement Pub, a strip club, burned down in 2005.

Raleigh and Place said the two projects are just two more signs of the neighborhood’s newfound prosperity.

But just a few blocks down South Main Street, where the commercial boom that’s adding zip to storefronts and condos gives way to blocks of older-grade apartments, some residents expressed concern about rent hikes, and the futures of the resale shops and less expensive dining options that they patronized.

“This place has crackheads, junkies, pedophiles,” Dakota Lavanway, 21, said as he walked downtown with two friends. “Whatever there is that’s bad, you can find it here.”

But Lavanway doesn’t see the development creeping down Main Street as an antidote to the neighborhood’s ills. The enterprise reeks of a bloc of institutions for which he harbors deep suspicion, using a derogatory phrase for “anything that has to do with government.”

But in fact, it is the government-subsidized development that shows the most promise of preventing rent hikes that might otherwise knock the bottom couple rungs out from the area’s socioeconomic ladder.

Twin Pines Housing Trust has a variety of affordable housing projects that it manages on South Main Street and in other adjacent residential neighborhoods, while Bridge and Main is an affordable housing project, which allowed it to court funding from the Vermont Housing Finance Agency and federal government-backed tax credits.

Nearly all of the Bridge and Main’s 17 units are renting in the $700 to $800 range, said Bittinger, the developer. The project will be fully completed in mid-June, and people already are living there, including three who lived most recently at the Upper Valley Haven.

“We’re receiving applications every single day,” Bittinger said. “We’ll have a nice range of incomes and demographics from younger to older. It’s a carefully undertaken project with a good base of social service support.”

Bittinger said projects like his, which have been encouraged by Hartford officials, help to prevent area rents from spiking too quickly.

“This will be a very stable rental market, not a rapidly transforming, gentrified village,” Bittinger said.

Parking Lots

One concern is that both projects, which have brought hundreds of construction workers into the neighborhood over the past year, will put too much strain on the municipality’s parking resources, which have been tracked by town planners for years and show signs of being overwhelmed.

“Parking in the downtown is something that is discussed almost daily in the Town Hall,” Town Manager Leo Pullar said. “It is time for us to quit talking about it and do something. We have to get ahead of the issue now. It is moving faster than we are right now.”

The town is considering everything from adding Main Street parking meters, to building a multi-million dollar parking garage.

Pullar said a current renovation project on the American Legion lot actually will shave a few spots off of the supply, but the town is contemplating a $560,000 lot expansion project, funded by the tax increment financing district that funnels the downtown’s tax dollars into a capital fund. That project would create 42 spots.

Selectboard member Kim Souza, who has owned the Revolution boutique in the downtown area for years, said that, as a business owner, she continues to have parking concerns.

“We don’t have all the answers yet,” she said. Still, she said, she was thrilled to see The Village and Bridge and Main projects nearing completion, and feels the parking woes are outweighed by the value they bring to the community.

“It’s great,” she said. “The Cartoon School did a wonderful job of attracting younger people. Now, it’s age diversity.”

Heyday Echoes

The idea of a bustling Main Street, along with its attendant benefits and challenges, might seem new, but insurance agency owner and former Selectboard member Ken Parker, 71, said the downtown was even more vibrant in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when it was a convergence point for the passengers of 53 daily trains, soldiers returning from overseas, and shopkeepers supplying the region with goods that are more commonly purchased at a large chain store, or online, today.

“That was the peak time of economic vitality,” he said, adding that the restaurants and streets were “chockablock full” of people and vehicles, at both 3 p.m. and 3 a.m.

Parker said the current development boom may never reach the heights of White River Junction’s heyday, but any progress is welcome after the long decline that set in as railroads waned.

“In the past, it was seen as a dirty railroad town, and the economy was left in shambles,” he said. “Now, there’s a substantial rise in awareness, and a sense of respectability.”

He said the new residents of The Village will add a welcome flavor to an ideal community that, to him, includes millennials and professionals, second-hand thrift stores and pricey boutiques, blue collar workers and retirees.

“There’s a benefit to having younger people — and sage and wise and older people — in your community,” he said. “They’re not incompatible. If anything, they’re likely to be a good mix.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.