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Baker breaks ground on Amherst’s $47.5M mixed-use project

  • Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, left, talks with former congressman John Olver of Amherst, Thursday, during a groundbreaking for North Square at the Mill District, on Cowls Road in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A program for the groundbreaking of North Square at the Mill District, a mixed-use, mixed-income project featuring 130 new apartments and space for eight to 10 businesses on Cowls Road in Amherst, is held June 14, 2018 at the site. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Gov. Charlie Baker, left, and Dara Kovel, president of Beacon Communities Development, listen as Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls Inc., speaks during Thursday’s groundbreaking for North Square at the Mill District in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A rendering of North Square at the Mill District, a mixed-use, mixed-income project featuring 130 new apartments and space for eight to 10 businesses on Cowls Road in Amherst, is displayed Thursday during the groundbreaking at the site. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Gov. Charlie Baker listens to a speech Thursday during a groundbreaking for North Square at the Mill District in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Visitors gather June 14, 2018 at the site of North Square at the Mill District, a mixed-use, mixed-income project featuring 130 new apartments and space for eight to 10 businesses on Cowls Road in Amherst, during the groundbreaking at the site. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A rendering of North Square at the Mill District, a mixed-use, mixed-income project featuring 130 new apartments and space for eight to 10 businesses on Cowls Road in Amherst, is displayed June 14, 2018 during the groundbreaking at the site. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2018

AMHERST — Gov. Charlie Baker says the future North Square at the Mill District, a mixed-use project featuring 130 new apartments and space for eight to 10 businesses, is an example of how communities, the state and private developers should build partnerships.

“This is exactly the kind of thing we like to support,” Baker said at a ceremonial groundbreaking for Beacon Communities Development’s $47.5 million project on Cowls Road Thursday afternoon.

But even though the recent adoption of a $1.8 billion housing bill by the state Legislature illustrates that his administration remains aggressive in getting housing built, Baker continued advocacy for passage of housing choices legislation that he says would mean 135,000 units of new housing over the next five to six years.

“We have huge issues with respect to housing affordability,” Baker said. He urged legislators to approve the housing choices legislation, which would make it easier to adopt best local zoning practices and give more flexibility in sustainable construction, among other things.

The commitment of his administration, Baker said, has included putting 150 state-owned properties back into effective use, often for housing, which is similar to the concept of redeveloping the 5.3 acres of previously industrial land owned by W.D. Cowls, where a sawmill was located and lumber production took place.

W.D. Cowls President Cinda Jones was accompanied to the podium by her nephew Samuel Jones, who kicked off the event by introducing himself as Gov. Baker.

“No, just kidding,” he said. “Welcome to the Mill District.”

Cinda Jones said as the ninth generation of her family to run the business, and with more than 275 years of history, she understands the need to adapt.

“Every generation of our family since 1741 has built what their generation of community has needed on this home farm site, north and south and west of Cowls Road,” Jones said.

She said she and her brother, Evan, are aiming to create community through what they are calling an eats, arts and entertainment destination.

Dara Kovel, president of Beacon Communities Development, cited the commitment of the Jones family and local vision and leadership.

“This would not have been possible without the town of Amherst’s support every step of the way,” Kovel said.

North Square is the first project in town that used special legislation that allows Amherst to offer special tax assessments on properties that include housing that’s deemed affordable for low- and moderate-income tenants.

The project also depended on federal and state low-income housing tax credits, funding from the Department of Housing and Community Development, Boston Community Loan Fund and US Bank and a first mortgage loan from the MassHousing Partnership.

Construction hasn’t begun, but the property is being prepared, with the removal of foundations of older buildings and landscaping to accommodate the new buildings. Kovel said by next spring, about half of the project, or 70 units, will be ready for occupancy, with the remainder opening a few months later. She estimates that 100 construction jobs and 20 to 25 permanent jobs are being created.

“It has been Amherst’s vision for a long time to create a circumstance like we’re seeing today,” said Select Board Chairman Douglas Slaughter, pointing to the town’s master plan that guides growth to village centers.

Slaughter was joined by colleagues, town officials and staff, as well as community leaders, including retired congressman John Olver, who recalls advocating before the Select Board for the project in February 2017, the first time he had spoken before town officials, because he considered it so important for the town’s future.

Select Board member Connie Kruger said she sees the project as representing the values espoused by Amherst.

“I see it as very progressive on affordable housing for this town,” Kruger said.

Of the 130 new apartments, 26 will be set aside for households earning up to 50 percent of the area median income, with the remainder for workforce and market-rate residents.

The 22,000 square feet of commercial space will join other businesses, including the Trolley Barn, a three-story mixed-use building with The Lift salon on the ground level and a second Jake’s restaurant planned to open in August, and the satellite Atkins Farms Country Market.

Before concluding his remarks, Baker observed that the project will mean customers for the newest business coming to the Mill District.

“I’m sure for the folks from Jake’s this will be a great boon for your business,” Baker said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.