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Editorial: Smart choice for final major residential project at Village Hill in Northampton

  • The Christopher Heights assisted-living residence at Village Hill in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


Friday, April 14, 2017

Disappointment last year over a failed project at Village Hill Northampton turned to welcome news this week with the announcement that the final major residential construction at the former state hospital will add needed affordable housing.

The Community Builders, a nonprofit housing developer based in Boston, was selected to work with Valley Community Development Corp. on the $19 million project for 65 mixed-income rental units on 29 acres at the north side of Village Hill.

“The Community Builders has successfully partnered with MassDevelopment on many housing projects throughout the commonwealth, and we are thrilled to work with them once again at Village Hill Northampton,” said Marty Jones, president and CEO of the state’s finance and development agency that is managing the redevelopment of the former state hospital property off Route 66. “This project will provide a variety of affordable housing options and valuable open space to Northampton residents.”

The Community Builders, which already has constructed two apartment complexes, Hillside Place and Hilltop Apartments, at Village Hill, takes over development of most of a 35-acre residential parcel after Transformations Inc. filed for bankruptcy in December. That Townsend company had planned 83 units, including a 30-unit multigenerational cohousing community with common areas such as gardens, a playground and guest rooms.

MassDevelopment set aside 5 acres for the Village Hill Cohousing Group, which now has seven months to find a new developer. Members of the group remain enthusiastic about seeing the project through, even though some lost $15,000 deposits to Transformations. Susan Lantz, a member of the cohousing group, said in December that she and others who worked on the development were “still invested in making it a reality.”

The Community Builders will provide a range of affordable housing, with eight units for two-person households earning less than $20,000 a year, another 27 targeted for those earning between $20,000 and $40,000, and the other 30 for those with incomes of up to $80,000.

Laura Baker, real estate property manager for Valley CDC, says, “That should capture pretty much everyone in the Northampton rental market. That’s the goal — to really have an economic mix.”

That was echoed by Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz, who said, “This is a really important housing type for Northampton, when we talk about trying to create housing at different levels of the income ladder.”

The developers are “really trying to target an area of the market where there’s a need,” he added. “This project is an important final phase for the overall Village Hill development.”

It adds to the 191 existing housing units at Village Hill, including single- and multiple-family homes and townhouses. Among them are an assisted-living residence, Christopher Heights of Northampton, which has 83 apartments, about half of which are for low-income seniors.

The Community Builders also plans another 2,500 square feet of commercial space at Village Hill, where already more than 400 employees work at several businesses, including headquarters for two major firms — L-3 KEO, formerly Kollmorgen Electro-Optical, and VCA Inc., which specializes in custom, hand-crafted furniture.

The transformation of the property, which features spectacular vistas of Mount Tom and the Holyoke Range, is nearly complete 24 years after the Northampton State hospital closed. The site was chosen in 1855 for the state’s third hospital for mentally ill people. The first patients were admitted in 1858 to what was then called the Northampton Lunatic Hospital.

By the mid-1950s, the wards were filled with more than 2,300 patients — many of whom were not mentally ill, but rather senile, elderly and without family. After a federal lawsuit resulted in a court order to transfer patients to community-based programs, the last left the hospital in August 1993.

As early as 1986, a citizens advisory committee in Northampton issued guidelines for reusing the property once the hospital closed. They called for a mix of residential, commercial and light industrial uses, as well as preserving some land for playing fields and open space.

More than three decades later, with redevelopment nearing a close, that goal has been realized.