Harborlight mulls starting Willow Street apartment project in Hamilton


willowstThe former Mac’s Shoe, part of the 59/63 Willow Street property owned by the Hamilton Development Corporation. The property is under consideration for up to 20 senior apartments.

A proposed affordable apartment complex restricted to seniors on Willow Street essentially received the town’s approval late last year, but the Hamilton Development Corporation’s (HDC) chosen developer doesn’t plan to pull the trigger until another site, specifically for family housing, is assured.

Last November and December, Hamilton’s Affordable Housing Trust (AHT) and the HDC gave the necessary votes and approvals for Harborlight Community Partners

(HCP), a developer of affordable housing in the North Shore, to purchase and build upon a parcel of land at 59/63 Willow St.

The HDC, an independent corporation supported by the town’s meals tax, has owned the parcel for several years and sought buyers to develop the property for additional growth downtown.

Both boards approved HCP proposal, the sole bid to develop the parcel filed earlier this year. HCP’s proposal would build a 20-unit senior apartment complex on the site.

HCP Executive Director Andrew DeFranza, however, said his organization wouldn’t commit to the award unless family apartments are assured elsewhere in town.

DeFranza, in a follow-up interview with the Chronicle, said he appreciated the vote of support and funding for Willow Street by both the AHT and HDC, but would still seek the approval of an additional site and another $300,000 in funding from the AHT before accepting the bid award.

“HCP is looking to make a decision based on the will of the various committees by the end of January,” DeFranza said. “We said when we submitted the bid on Willow (Street), we’d do it if there’s a sister site.”

At its Nov. 29 meeting, the HDC voted unanimously to award the parcel to HCP with a handful of conditions, including occupational preference for existing Hamilton residents, signed AHT support, allowing the possibility of commercial use, and a requirement the sale and purchase of the property be completed by the end of June 2018.

HDC Chairman Brian Stein abstained from the vote, which did include the board’s four other members.

The possibility for mixed use comes from a proposed design by HCP that would allocate some part of the new building for the Acord Food Pantry. The pantry already occupies a unit at 69 Willow St., HCP’s existing downtown apartment building in Hamilton that houses four affordable apartments.

Additionally, abutters to the Willow Street project have requested in writing that HCP skirt the town’s existing zoning laws for the downtown by seeking a 40B permit with the state. This would allow the project to be constructed with just a two-story building and avoid the commercial requirement. In a letter to the HDC, the abutters said they would agree not to legally appeal the 40B assuming the smaller height was allowed.

Chapter 40B, a state law created in the late 1960s and commonly called the “anti-snob zoning law,” allows developers who set aside 25 percent of their housing stock as affordable to override certain local zoning bylaws or restrictions, if the host community doesn’t have at least 10 percent of its total housing classified by the state as affordable.

Hamilton is at 3 percent of said total, needing about 200 more units to reach its 10 percent goal. Wenham is around 8 percent.

The AHT approved granting $300,000 from their trust fund towards the project and gave their vote of support at their own Dec. 20 meeting.

Harborlight, however, has stated since last year they’ll move on the senior-only project only if a sister site for family apartments is approved as well.

Currently, this other site is likely the acres located just off Longmeadow Way, a parcel that has become the focal point of a protracted community battle on affordable housing.

HCP, which owns a majority of the parcel, is seeking to construct about 40 units of family apartments there. Resistance from legal abutters and neighboring streets, primarily along Bay Road and Ortins Road, resulted in a protracted, almost two-year dialogue over what is acceptable at the site and the community’s housing appetite at large.

HCP has held off on filing for a 40B permit with the state to seek tacit approval from the town’s elected boards, primarily via votes of support, thus giving greater legal strength to the project when the inevitable legal challenge arises.

The AHT has not given a final vote of approval for either the Longmeadow parcel or another sister site.

HCP has offered to sell a portion of the Longmeadow site to the town or the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School district for other potential uses, ranging from playing fields to a new school location.

The Hamilton-Wenham Regional School Committee has agreed to study the need and potential funding for a new school but both towns have stated they have no interest in the land.

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