by Nat Frothingham
After lying vacant for 75 years, the two upper floors above Aubuchon Hardware at 32 to 42 Main Street in downtown Montpelier are finally getting their much-needed makeover.
The first or “abatement phase” of the project, purging the floors of lead paint and other toxins, is close to being done and renovations are set to begin soon, with the end result being 18 new studio and one-bedroom apartments. Construction is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2018.
According to Eileen Peltier, executive director of Downstreet Housing and Community Development, the not-for-profit organization that has masterminded the $6-plus million project, the apartments will be available to a mix of clients beginning in 2019.
Of the 18 new apartments, four will be “market rate” apartments available to anyone who is interested in renting at current market conditions. Five others are being set aside for homeless people, and the remaining nine for low-income people, described as persons whose incomes are about 60 percent of the Central Vermont area’s median income.
When Peltier was asked to describe her exact role with the long-delayed renovation, she said, “My job is to convince everybody that we should do this project.”
And of course the major reason the upper floors of the French Block have lain dormant for 75 years is the costs of redevelopment and the project rental income – these numbers never added up for a typical commercial developer.
But there’s plenty that makes it worth doing now. The block is right across the street from City Hall in the heart of Montpelier’s downtown business district, and there’s a significant need for affordable housing in Montpelier.
There’s been a pretty long history of community awareness of the need to redevelop the French Block. When the late Margot George, who contributed so much to historic preservation achievements in Montpelier, died in December 2008, the Vermont General Assembly honored George the following year with a resolution taking note of her many achievements.
One paragraph from that resolution touches on the French Block:
“Whereas, as part of Montpelier’s celebration in 1992 of its own centennial, Margot George and the Montpelier Heritage Group created a parade float titled ‘Cleaning the Windows of the City’ that was placed on the back of a 1926 restored Model T pickup, to announce that the Heritage Group was cleaning windows and installing curtains in vacant rooms on the upper floors of buildings in the city’s downtown.”
Until very recently those curtains have hung in the upper story French Block windows as a silent reproach to the City of Montpelier and other agency players for not getting the money to reclaim and renovate the upper floors of the French block building.
In 2010, Downstreet Housing organized a renovation proposal to provide housing in the upper floors of the French block for people with disabilities. But the project got stymied. Said Peltier, “We were hoping to do the project and we couldn’t get clearance from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)
HUD refused to give clearance to the project because there was a fear that if there was another big flood in Montpelier, the apartment tenants slated to be people with disabilities would not be able to get out of their apartments early enough.
“We knew that Montpelier wanted to do this project,” said Peltier about the determination that she and others summoned to pull together the needed resources and players. “I pushed it with Housing Vermont. It’s a rough building. That’s why nobody else wanted to do it. People would say, ‘Wow,’ and this ‘wow’ expressed their concern about the condition of the building and getting the renovations done.
Yes, the project was daunting. But there were compelling arguments for biting the bullet and moving forward:
- Montpelier has a one percent vacancy rate.
- Montpelier has a strong need for affordable housing, really any kind of housing.
- The French Block is admirably situated close to jobs and transportation.
- The project has access to all kinds of amenities and services even if you don’t have a vehicle.
In addition were these intangibles. The community supported the project. And as Pelter said, “There was so much appreciation that we are doing it, and it’s going to be gorgeous when it’s done,” Peltier said, noting the wainscoting, sky lights, big windows, and high ceilings.
Peltier was unsparing in her praise to the many players who came together to make the project happen. The City of Montpelier Housing Trust Fund contributed $175,000 toward the cost of the project. “There are only a few communities around the state that has a trust fund for affordable housing,” Peltier said.
She was also high in her praise of former Mayor John Hollar and the Montpelier City Council. And she singled out Aubuchon Hardware for special mention. “We purchased the upper stories from Aubuchon Hardware. Essentially, we created a condominium. Legally, that’s very complicated. We ran into all kinds of challenges.”
Throughout this process, Peltier said that Aubuchon Hardward has been generous and supportive.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the project will be held on May 1 with Senator Leahy among the honored guests.