Easthampton panel recommends developer to turn three schools into housing

By EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer

Published: 04-12-2023 3:44 PM

EASTHAMPTON — A Needham developer’s $30.4 million pitch to transform the city’s three former elementary schools into 61 units of mixed-income housing and preserving Pepin Gym and auditorium for community use has emerged as the favorite reuse plan for the old buildings.

Arch Communities LLC narrowly scored the highest out of three submitted proposals, based on criteria spelled out in advance and judged by the Evaluation Committee, a volunteer group established by the City Council to review proposals and make a favored recommendation.

In addition to Arch Communities, the Evaluation Committee heard two other proposals, one by New York City-based nonprofit The NHP Foundation, and the Springfield affordable housing development company Way Finders Inc.

The proposal by Arch Communities, which is owned by Richard Relich, scored the highest with 32 points, according to a memorandum written by Emily Keys Innes, principal at Innes Associates Ltd. and consultant to Easthampton, on behalf of the Evaluation Committee.

Arch’s proposal includes transforming the three buildings into 61 apartments: one studio apartment, 31 one-bedroom apartments, 15 two-bedroom apartments and 14 three-bedroom apartments. The majority of the rents will be designated as affordable and will range between 30% to 60% of the area median income, with the balance of the units renting at market rates.

Eight of the affordable units will be set aside for residents earning no more than 30% of the area median income level.

“The critical difference between Arch Communities LLC and the second-ranked respondent, the NHP Foundation, was the preservation of Pepin Gym and auditorium for community use,” the memorandum states.

In addition to keeping the gym and auditorium open for public use, Arch’s proposal features a large community room and a kitchen, as well as potential uses, including a library and computer room and a fitness wellness area.

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The Evaluation Committee also noted other criteria in the Arch plan, including the mix of unit types, overall benefit to the city, previous experience in Easthampton, and the willingness of the developer to work with the city on affordability levels, public parking, and unit count.

The developer also proposed an option for new townhouses to supplement the reuse of the three school buildings.

The NHP Foundation received 31 points for its $38.2 million proposal to convert the old school buildings into 69 unique living spaces. The proposal includes 19 public parking spaces, two green spaces, a dog park, a playground and two community gardens. NHP’s plan also includes the retention of Pepin Auditorium, which will be reimagined as a space for local community-based theater that would serve as a community activity and meeting place.

Way Finders, meanwhile, received 24 points for its $27 million project that proposes buying Maple Street School for $1 to redevelop the site into 54 new housing units. 

Michael Owens, procurement officer for Easthampton, said that all three proposals met the minimum qualifications establsihed by the RFP.

In a presenatation in March, Relich said that Arch is known for creating affordable workforce and mixed-income housing throughout New England, and has significant experience with historic adaptive reuse projects.

The company has completed school redevelopments in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island, most recently of which includes a vacant school in Worcester County. The former Mary E. Wells High School in Southbridge was converted into 62 units of mixed-income affordable housing.

All three responding developers stated a need for a timely designation of a preferred developer so that the winning design has time to submit requirements for funding, the next round of which is in October.

The consultant’s memorandum suggests that the City Council select a preferred developer no later than May.

Relich said in his interview with the Evaluation Committee that the estimated $30.4 million to redevelop the buildings includes the $1.28 purchase price and $22.2 million in construction costs.

The project will use an estimated $4.5 million in federal historic tax credits, $2.8 million in state historic tax credits, $10.3 million in federal low-income housing tax credits, and $3.6 million in state low-income housing tax credits.

Relich estimates a 14-month construction schedule and a six-month period to lease the apartments to attain full occupancy.

The Evaluation Committee’s recommendation was referred to the council’s Property Committee at the April 5 City Council meeting. Precinct 1 Councilor James “J.P.” Kwiecinski, the chairperson of the Property Committee, said that they were still finalizing the date of the next meeting to discuss the recommendation, but added that it was likely to be on April 20.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.]]>