By Bill Cantwell and Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Apartments and condos seem to be everywhere downtown.
Hundreds of them have been built in old shoe factories. They are also on upper floors of buildings that have restaurants, lounges and other businesses on the street level.
City leaders call the new homes which saturate the downtown the key to its comeback. They have brought a new population of younger, professional people who are spending money in the heart of the city, boosting its economy.
But there is one place downtown you will seldom, if ever find an apartment — the ground floor of a building.
The move came with much debate however, and barely got approval from the City Council.
This week, the council reviewed a plan for 19 apartments and 4,000 square feet of retail space in a vacant building that formerly housed the Surplus Office Supply company.
Before the meeting, it seemed the project would get quick approval because it would bring new life to an empty building in the otherwise busy Washington Street restaurant district.
But when councilors learned the proposal called for a living unit on the street-level floor, some members objected. Four of the council’s nine members initially opposed the plan when they voted in favor of a motion by Councilor William Macek not to allow residential space on the ground floor.
Macek said he wanted to avoid setting a new precedent and that historically the downtown has had only commercial space on the ground floors of buildings.
“I didn’t want an apartment on the first floor as it’s a prime location for retail and we should not start a new precedent,” Macek said on Friday. “For decades we haven’t had retail space on the ground floor.
“Our zoning says we allow apartments only on upper floors,” Macek said. “I can think of a lot of places such as convenience stores and laundromats throughout the city that were converted to residential use. But I don’t want to start a precedent here.”
Macek said he ultimately decided to support the plan for the building, which calls for six apartments on each of the second, third and fourth floors. It also calls for a ground-floor commercial space facing Washington Street and a smaller attached residential unit at the rear of the building facing the Wingate Street parking lot.
“I didn’t want to kill the project,” Macek said. “It’s a good restoration project that will clean up a building in need of historical restoration. Overall it’s good for the city and the building will bring jobs and more people downtown.”
All nine councilors ultimately voted in favor of the plan, with Macek saying he didn’t want to hold up a much-needed project due to concerns about a ground-floor apartment that might eventually become commercial space anyway.
Macek added that if the developer can’t find a tenant interested in renting a commercial space with an attached apartment, an arrangement that would allow a tenant to live where they work, the development can convert it to all commercial space.
Councilor Colin LePage said the council recently allowed the same kind of zoning for professional work space on the north side of Merrimack Street, allowing artist loft spaces with stores fronting Merrimack Street and residences in the rear.
“Why should a few blocks make a difference?” LePage said of the distance between the Merrimack Street project and the Washington Street building.
Councilor Robert Scatamacchia initially supported Macek’s motion, but he too relented.
“It’s the concept of developing downtown to have commercial on the first floor,” Scatamacchia said. “It’s important to maintain some type of continuity. But for one unit, I’m not going to jeopardize a project that will have the positive impact this will have.”