Rutland looks to build more downtown housing

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(Host) Downtown business districts often face a dilemma – at five o’clock – people leave and it can be difficult for area shops and restaurants to lure them back.

In Rutland local leaders say one way to help solve this problem is to create more downtown housing – especially upscale condominiums and apartments.

As VPR’s Nina Keck reports, there are several new projects in Rutland that hope to fill that need.

(Keck) According to the city assessor, there are 129 apartments in Rutland’s central downtown district. The vast majority of those are subsidized, low income units in the Bardwell House and the newly restored Tuttle Building. City officials have said repeatedly that more market-driven housing is needed.

(Sound of apartment door opening)

(Keck) Mark Foley Junior agrees. He opens the door to a 12-hundred square foot apartment he’s renovating overlooking Merchant’s Row.

(Foley) “This is going to be a New York loft style apartment. I’ve got the plans over here.”

(Keck) Those plans include: twelve-foot ceilings, a gas fireplace, a circular bedroom and computer nook. Foley and his father, Mark Foley Senior, own 47 buildings in Rutland – 25 of them downtown. While most of their properties are used commercially, Foley says they felt the time was right to develop a few upscale apartments in the heart of the city.

(Foley) “I believe that one of the things that is going to be important for downtown in the future is that people be down here. We want to help contribute to that. When you come down and you see activity it really is infectious, and people want to be part of that. I don’t know how many of our buildings we’ll do this with, but we believe there is a need for market driven home space here. It’s part of what I think will be the future of Rutland.”

(Keck) Rutland real estate agent Laurie Mecier, says there’s definitely a market for high end apartments and condominiums downtown from older couples who want to downsize, to couples who’ve just moved to the area but aren’t sure where to buy.

(Mecier) “We have a lot of people who come from out of state who are used to being downtown – used to walking and appreciate being in that atmosphere. And young people I think with so many things going on downtown, I think they could get really excited about living in a nice place that they don’t have to have a car, they don’t have to worry about that stuff.”

(Keck) Mecier says up to this point, there hasn’t been much to offer them. But plans to develop an empty downtown lot could change that. The old Berwick hotel burned down in 1973 and the one acre lot has stood empty ever since. Elisabeth Kulas, Executive Director of the Rutland County Community Land Trust, says proposed plans for the site include a four story building with underground parking. In addition to retail space on the first two floors – plans include 20 to 25 one and two bedrooms apartments above.

(Kulas) “It takes the right development team at the right time to pull a project like this together and we’re there.”

(Keck) The Land Trust and several other local agencies are working on the project with the Rutland Herald, which owns the land. Cost estimates are between 15 and 20 million dollars.

Despite the high price tag, Kulas is confident they’ll be able to complete the project with funding from state, federal and private sources.

Two years ago, The Community Land Trust spearheaded the renovation of Rutland’s historic Tuttle building and Kulas says that track record will help.

(Kulas) “The state is able to get excited about this for Rutland. Rutland can often times be seen as the forgotten territory of Vermont and when a project with this kind of potential comes forward – the enthusiasm for it can spread to other parts of the state.”

(Keck) Elisabeth Kulas says the Rutland Herald plans to sell the land to what will likely be a group of local agencies and private investors. The Land Trust, she says, will manage the property.

If all goes well, Kulas says they’ll begin the permit process next year, start construction in 2009 and open in 2010.
Unlike the Tuttle building, Kulas says the Berwick project will include both low income and market driven housing. How that will go over, she admits, is uncertain.

(Kulas) “It’s a really big leap for a community that’s never focused on and provided downtown rental housing. There’s this perception that if you have money you should own your own home – and so whether or not the people who say they would like the idea of living downtown will actually sell their homes and move is another question.”

(Keck) But Kulas and real estate owner, Mark Foley say it’s time to make that move downtown an option.

For VPR news, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland

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