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New Bridge and Main Building in White River Junction Will Help Fill Housing Need

  • Ira Pearlman, who said he is a tenant of the Bridge and Main Building in White River Junction, Vt., looks in on a grand opening event for the building while passing by Monday, July 2, 2018. From left, David Tille, Regional Administrator for the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., Marcelle Pomerleau Leahy, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., talk before the event begins. Residential tenants are beginning to occupy apartments in the building and interior work is nearing completion on two ground-floor commercial spaces. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Developer Bill Bittinger speaks to guests during a grand opening event for his Bridge and Main Building in downtown White River Junction, Vt., Monday, July 2, 2018. The building now stands on the lot left vacant when the White River Amusement Pub burned in a fire in 2005. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rita Seto, Senior Planner with the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, fans herself with a program while listening to Vermont Housing and Conservation Board Executive Director Gustav Seelig speak during the grand opening of the Bridge and Main Building in White River Junction, Vt., Monday, July 2, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Guests at a grand opening for developer Bill Bittinger's $4.4 million Bridge and Main Building gather outside the building in White River Junction, Vt., Monday, July 2, 2018. The building will house 17 rental units and two commercial spaces to be occupied by Juel Juice and Little Istanbul Turkish Gifts and Spices. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, July 02, 2018

White River Junction — The dearth of workforce housing in the Upper Valley has been eased a bit by a project that came close to dying but was rescued when its developer knit together several funding programs from federal, state and private sources.

Five years after Hanover developer Bill Bittinger first set out to build a new residential and commercial project on a corner lot in downtown White River Junction left vacant by a fire, town officials, politicians, merchants and the merely curious assembled in the building’s basement-level community room on a hot and muggy Monday morning to recognize the near-completion of the Bridge and Main apartment building.

Bridge and Main, as the building on the northeast corner of Bridge and North Main streets is named, provides 16 one-bedroom apartments where monthly rents run around $700 to qualifying low- and moderate-income renters. One unit is priced at a market rate of about $900 per month.

Most residents can’t have incomes of more than about $31,000 annually to be eligible to rent at Bridge and Main, although five units have been set aside for renters with annual incomes below about $26,000.

Bittinger declined to say how many of the units have been rented so far, but he said “we got a few left.”

The project was made possible in part by two federal housing financing programs that Vermont’s Patrick Leahy has championed during his long career in the Senate. The Trump administration tried to “zero out” the federal financing programs designed to increase the stock of affordable housing in the country, but Leahy took credit Monday for wielding his clout as ranking minority member on the Senate Appropriations Committee to see that funding was restored — and even increased.

“It fills a real need,” Leahy said of the two funding programs, the HOME Investment Partnership Programs and the Community Development Block Grant Program, in an interview. Vermont receives about $3 million annually in federal HOME funding, which goes toward the building of about 400 affordable housing units each year. “It has had a significant effect for the good.”

“The current administration wanted to eliminate HOME and CDBG,” he said. “We put the money back in. We are all Americans, and we ought to be able (to afford) to live in the greatest country on Earth.”

Leahy was joined by U.S. Rep. Peter Welch at the event where several dozen people filled the steam-bath-like community room as the temperature crept above 90-degrees outside.

Leahy recalled stopping off in White River Junction when he was a kid traveling with his parents on trips down to to Boston. Revitalization efforts are changing the face of the downtown, he said.

“Now you can se e it really coming back,” Leahy told the gathering. “You can see it’s really coming back.”

Adjacent to the Polka Dot Restaurant and across the street from Tuckerbox Restaurant and Revolution apparel store, the four-story, 18,000-square-foot building is the third major project to debut recently in downtown White River Junction. It follows the completion of an assisted-living facility, The Village at White River Junction, on Gates Street, and Mike Davidson’s redevelopment last year of 241 South Main St., a 36-unit apartment complex in the former College Cleaners plant.

Bittinger related how the Bridge and Main project, already three years in the works, received a near crippling blow when uncertainty over the future of the corporate tax rate created by the 2016 elections “resulted in the markets freezing” and caused the principal equity investor to back out. That left a big hole in financing the project’s $4.5 million budget.

“We were weeks from closing and suddenly the $3 million in equity disappeared,” said Liz Nickerson, a Woodstock consultant who worked with Bittinger to structure the project’s financing package.

The gap was plugged by the sale of tax credits to People’s United Bank, a regional bank in the Northeast. Tax credits are sold to businesses and investors that want to lessen their federal tax burden.

Arthur Casavant, a first vice president and Community Reinvestment Act officer at People’s United Bank, said the bank now has “almost a half billion” in tax credits invested throughout New York and New England.

“Workforce housing arguably is the single biggest issue we deal with in New England,” he said. “We hope to do a lot more.”

Other financing for the project was raised through HUD’s HOME program, which contributed $500,000, and HUD’s community block grant program, which contributed $410,000.

The two HUD programs — HOME focuses on housing while the block grant program finances infrastructure projects in addition to housing projects — often work in tandem, according to Gus Seelig, executive director of the Vermont State Housing and Conservation Board, which administers the HOME program in the state.

“These projects in the heart of downtown” are critical for reviving communities that fell on hard times after the retreat of manufacturing in the 1960s and 1970s, he said. He noted that funding for HOME — which is increasing by $412 million to $1.4 billion under the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill approved by Congress in the spring — will expand affordable housing programs in Vermont.

“We do about 400 units a year and that could go up to 600 to 700 units,” he said.

Another $500,000 in financing came from the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, which finances affordable housing complexes through the sale of tax-exempt bonds. About $30,000 was also kicked in by Efficiency Vermont, which consults with contractors to lower electricity and heating costs on projects.

Bittinger will retain ownership of the street-level commercial space in the building, which totals about 2,000-square feet. The space had already been leased to two start-up businesses: crafts-importing business Little Istanbul, which is owned and operated by Tuckerbox restaurant owners Vural and Jackie Oktay; and Juel, a juice bar and light lunch counter owned by Elena Taylor and Julie Sumanis, who have been operating a juice and smoothie trailer at area farmers markets.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.