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Hartford panel approves Northern Stage’s plan for apartment complex

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/2/2022 10:08:43 PM
Modified: 12/2/2022 10:08:55 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — A Northern Stage plan to build a performing arts center and a 26-unit residential complex for theater employees on Gates Street obtained approval from the Hartford Planning Commission, despite a split between members over the project’s architectural design.

On Tuesday the Planning Commission, by a narrow margin of 4-3, approved a plan by Northern Stage to build an employee housing facility and an adjoining rehearsal and educational building on two residential lots on Gates Street, a mixed district of residential and commercial properties in the historic downtown, including the home of the Northern Stage theater.

The complex will include a mix of studio and one-bedroom apartments, as well as six two-bedroom units, which will serve as housing for both year-round and seasonal theater employees, said Eric Bunge, special projects manager at Northern Stage.

Housing performers and theater workers has been a challenging and costly endeavor for Northern Stage, which is contractually obligated to provide accommodations at no cost to union employees.

Bunge, in a presentation to the Planning Commission, said the theater currently leases 14 apartments in downtown White River Junction for its employees, which costs the theater “between $19,000 and $20,000 per month.”

“Not only will this project help address the workforce housing challenges of Northern Stage, but it will probably release a number of units that we are currently renting (back to the rental market),” Bunge said.

But several Planning Board commissioners objected to the project’s architectural design, which members felt was too modern for the neighborhood’s character, which includes several historic homes.

“I like the look of the building, but I’m not sure it belongs in the middle of a district of a 200-year-old village,” Commissioner Colin Butler said.

Several modern-style buildings have overtaken the historic downtown of White River Junction in recent years, including The Village, a $27 million, 89-bed senior living facility on Gates Street, and the Ledgeworks apartment building on 132 S. Main St., one of several building rehabilitation projects completed by Upper Valley developer Mike Davidson.

But the gradual loss of historic structures downtown, commissioners said, was precisely why Northern Stage should have tried to capture a historic feel in its proposed design.

“You could have done a better job to make this (project) less upsetting to those of us who are watching our buildings disappear,” Commissioner Robin Adair Logan told Bunge.

Commissioners also said they still have reservations about the proposed parking and traffic flow.

The proposed project will include an on-site parking lot with 25 total spaces, a ratio of approximately one space per residential unit. The town requirement for multi-family projects is a ratio of two parking spaces per unit, though planning and zoning officials will consider exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

Bunge explained that most of these employees do not have vehicles during their time at Northern Stage. They typically come from out-of-state and travel to Vermont by Dartmouth Coach, train or plane.

There are also 12 on-street parallel parking spaces on Gates Street directly in front of properties owned by Northern Stage, as well as available employee parking spaces at the theater, which is a short walking distance to the new complex.

Chairman John Reid, Vice Chairman Bruce Riddle and commissioners Dillon Bianchi and Butler voted in favor of the application. Logan, along with commissioners Toby Dayman and John Heath, voted in opposition, all stating the lack of architectural fit as their reason.

The commission added several conditions to its project approval. Northern Stage will need to create a snow removal plan that ensures that no meltage will flow into abutting properties. The landscapers will plant taller shade trees than the varieties initially proposed. And Northern Stage will resolve a question regarding the actual boundary line shared with property abutter Brian Marsicovetere, an attorney with a law practice at 128 Gates St.

Northern Stage owns two additional houses on Gates Street that serve as employee housing, totaling six units. The theater also owns the former Twin State Typewriter building at 93 S. Main St., which it also plans to convert to staff housing.

The planned performing arts center will be connected to the residential building and serve as a multi-use facility for rehearsals and educational programs. Northern Stage runs a number of youth-based programs for ages 8 through 18, which typically meet after school or on weekends.

Bunge said there tends to be a “pinch point” for space in the main theater to accommodate the variety of theater functions.

The student programs typically have 15 to 20 students enrolled who are dropped off by parents. About four times a year there will be a student performance for parents, which can draw about 70 guests, according to Bunge.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at 603-727-3216 or padrian@vnews.com.




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