White River Junction Developer Plans Apartments, Office Space
American Legion Hall owner Matt Bucy sits in the building's ballroom in White River Junction, Vt., in Dec. 2012. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
White River Junction — Twenty-one affordable studio apartments and first-floor office space are the cornerstones of a downtown developer’s vision for the old American Legion Hall on South Main Street. Both are part of an early plan that has been hailed by regional planners and community leaders as the right fit for White River Junction’s young population.
Hartford resident Matt Bucy, who bought the building last December for $600,000 and whose resume includes renovating a pair of landmark buildings on North Main Street, said in an interview Wednesday that he hopes to see construction begin next summer and have the building open by late 2014.
Bucy also foresees a rented storefront on the first floor. The building will be gutted and the exterior redone to make it thermally efficient. The highlight, though, might be the idea for the apartments, which Bucy said are “just the thing that’s stuck with me as I’ve thought about the project.
“The population of the downtown has been getting somewhat younger ... and there’s a need for studio apartments, affordable studio apartments, with the population of people who’s living here for a couple years or a season,” he said, noting that institutions like the Center for Cartoon Studies and Northern Stage theater are among the draws. “And I think there’s just a call for it in general, for people who want to live by themselves and be a part of a community of sort.”
Bucy envisions high ceilings and a mix of sizes, ranging from 400 to 800 square feet, with each unit including its own bathroom and kitchen module. Some may be furnished for short-term stays. He’s aiming to make the building as close to “net-zero” energy as possible, which would cost more upfront but save on operating costs, helping to hold down rental rates. Bucy said he might be able to offer the units for as little as $700 a month.
“That’s usually (the rate) for a beat-up, older apartment,” he said, “so if I can hit that for a new space, that would be awesome, but no guarantees.”
The plans are fluid, Bucy said; he’s not sure how much the renovation would cost and the permitting process is down the road. But he also imagines turning half of the first floor of the 22,400-square-foot building into what he called the “health club version of an office,” where an estimated 200 “members” could “subscribe” to different levels of access. The space would include 15 to 20 office pods, conference rooms and other amenities.
The up-and-coming design concept is catching on in urban centers and can be found as near as Montpelier, he said. While he’s not totally sure it will work in the Upper Valley, he said he sees enough people “packed in the Tuckerbox every day” tapping away on laptops that he’s confident there could be a market for creative individuals and other independent workers who need office space.
“Like all my projects, they’re kind of experiments, so I put the idea out there and see who shows up,” he said. “I want to attract people who are doing creative things.”
Regional planners and community leaders spoke of the benefits in the plans Wednesday, saying the apartments could help fill a void in the Upper Valley rental market while enhancing the vibrancy of White River Junction’s core downtown.
“The availability of new studio apartments in the Upper Valley on public transportation (routes) that are affordable is practically zero, as far as I can tell,” said Anne Duncan Cooley, the executive director of the Upper Valley Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes workforce housing. “There seems to be a really strong demand for well-located, studio apartments. ... It’s just a housing type that attracts young folks, (who are) the future of our community.”
Data gathered by the coalition shows that, at the end of September, there were 78 unrented single-occupancy apartments in the Upper Valley, with only three of them renting for less than 30 percent of the income for someone earning $25,000 per year. That “should be a significant concern if we as a community hope to encourage young adults and new college graduates entering the workforce to move here and help maintain the vitality of the Upper Valley,” said Realtor Lynne LaBombard, a coalition board member who specializes in the rental market.
The Upper Valley rental market runs a 2 percent vacancy rate, LaBombard said — even less for single-occupancy studios — which can drive up rental rates. Cooley noted that alleviating the rental burden frees up young people to participate in the local economy, which benefits both businesses and tenants.
“You can spend your money down at the Tuckerbox or go to a performance at Northern Stage,” she said. “You’re not spending all your money on housing, you’re spending it on other things, and that seems to be something that this newer generation of younger workers is very cognisant of.”
Cooley noted that Hartford’s zoning code in White River Junction’s business district is amenable to this kind of development. Many surrounding communities tie the number of units permitted in a building to the acreage of the lot, but Planning and Development Director Lori Hirshfield said Hartford uses a “floor area ratio” zoning formula in the core of the village.
Passed in the mid-2000s, the formula defines the maximum amount of developable space as twice the lot’s square footage. For example, a 10,000-square-foot lot could have 20,000 square feet of residential development across several floors.
“And that’s pretty generous,” Hirshfield said, adding that she’s talked to Bucy and thinks his plans are a good idea. “You want more residential downtown, you want people downtown. That’s one of the primary ways of making sure that you have a vibrant community, that you have people living and working in the same area.”
Selectboard Chairman Chuck Wooster called it a “fabulous idea” and said he liked the mix of “incubator space and residential space,” while Hotel Coolidge owner David Briggs, the chairman of the board of directors of the Hartford Development Corporation, said the plans “really sound great to me ... and will be a contribution to White River and its evolution.”
Those reactions were shared by Center for Cartoon Studies President Michelle Ollie, who said she and the school community have been “eager to see more housing opportunity” in the downtown area, where students often don’t have cars.
“I guess I see this not only as just for some of our students,” she added, “but I also see it expanding a residential mix downtown, outside of the school as well, which is really wonderful because I know a lot of people wanted to live in White River but the type of housing that they wanted just wasn’t available. I have a feeling Matt’s going to fill this void.”
The shared office space was “equally exciting,” Ollie said, noting that a new Advance Transit bus stop in front of the building makes it an even more desirable location for people to live and work.
“Matt’s always got a pulse on this, and he seems to really always be able to hit the mark,” she said. “He’s right in the sense that people are looking for a sense of community.”
Bucy, a filmmaker and director of photography, owns and renovated the Tip Top Media and Arts building, a former bakery that he bought in 2000, and the Dreamland Building, an old office building now used for commercial and retail space.
He bought the American Legion building last year after it was vacated by Hartford Post 26, which had occupied the building since its construction in 1969.
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3220.