Brunswick is once again considering a workforce housing complex for the city’s downtown, but with some significant changes since when the plan was first introduced.
Representatives from the Verdant Development Group and Zavos Architecture and Design returned to the city Tuesday to present a new vision for a project known as Railroad Square, an affordable housing complex that could bring up to 51 apartments.
The complex had first been proposed in July 2017, but after a lack of public support, the developers withdrew their application for tax credits for the property.
Now, the developers and Zavos have a new proposal for the building.
The complex would still offer 51 apartments, but by shrinking hallway and corridor sizes, the proposed building would be 15 percent smaller, said T. Wesley Poss, president of Verdant Development Group. The smaller size would also mean that the building would not need to take away 10 street parking spaces and disrupt traffic flow.
There will also be more green space around the complex.
This time, the developers are proposing retail space, or retail and office space, as part of the new building. This was something that they could not do under the former plan, Poss said in the presentation, because of the size of the building. Now, with the smaller building, they can. That was something that residents wanted, he said, and something they were not going to come back to the council without.
“What we did is work really hard to shrink that building and create the ability to have a free-standing retail building. ... That being said, the market still has to support it,” Poss said.
To build the complex, the developers would have to tear down four buildings, including some currently owned by Scot Lessler, who would sell the buildings to the development company.
Brunswick is under a downtown building demolition moratorium for buildings older than 25 years until October.
Because some of the buildings are more historic than others, Councilman Tom Smith asked if elements from the demolished buildings could be incorporated, suggesting that they could build something like a gazebo from other building elements.
Poss said the group was up to discussing ways to emulate the architecture of the historic buildings and using some of the older features, as long as it was safe.
“We could actually do something cool,” he said.
The new plan received overall positive reviews from the mayor and council, with mixed reviews from residents in the audience.
“I think you guys have done an amazing job. To be quite frank, I expected you to come back and put something else in front of us that would just make us go, ‘what the heck were these guys thinking,’” Councilman Vaughn Ripley said.
Smith did have some questions about the ability to fill the retail space. Resident Jennifer Johnson said she had little faith in the company to follow through with the retail plan, saying that residents had heard plans for a mixed-use building before.
“And now once again, we have promises of a commercial aspect that’s not guaranteed,” Johnson said.
Poss responded that they never proposed a mixed-use component in the previous plan. While there’s no guarantee they would be able to fill the retail space — that would depend on the market — it is something that was asked for when the former plan was submitted.
Phillips Wisor was also against the plan. He asked what the city thought of losing the buildings, but Poss said that those are privately owned, which meant Lessler had the right to sell them.
He was not the only one upset with the possible loss of the buildings. Another resident questioned if the plan rewarded Lessler for profiting from buildings that had stayed vacant for a period of time.
Former Mayor Karin Tome took issue with this, saying that the city has always looked for redevelopment opportunities. And, like Poss, she pointed out that the buildings were private property.
“I find it ironic that people criticize a property owner for selling ... for doing what we’ve asked them to do for years and years,” Tome said. “I just don’t understand that at all.”
Tome said that the overall process has been good for her, and she knows that everyone involved wants what is best for the city.
The proposal is still in the early stages, Poss said. There’s still more to be worked out with a lease for the parking lot, and the group wants to have another public hearing.
“So we’ve got a long, long way to go,” he said.