EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 26, 2014

Ornstein site positioned to spark building boom on river

Council OKs zoning change aimed at winning state money

By Shawn Regan

---- — HAVERHILL — City Council has agreed to take back a measure of control over future development of the long dormant Ornstein Heel property on the banks of the Merrimack River in the city’s Bradford section.

The move is about money, not power, however.

Officials have been positioning the city-owned Ornstein property as the catalyst for a potential residential building boom on the Bradford side of the river.

A few months ago the council approved a new waterfront zone, giving it less oversight of proposals along the river, and making it is easier and potentially more profitable for developers to build projects.

The council retained its authority to review proposals in the waterfront zone, but it can’t reject ones that adhere to new rules aimed at encouraging specific uses and requiring public access to the riverfront.

But Mayor James Fiorentini and Economic Development Director William Pillsbury recently asked the council to take back its ability to control the Ornstein site through the special permit process. That process gives the council discretion to decide what can and can’t be built on the property.

Pillsbury called the change “technical” and said it will allow the city to receive more money from the state if the city decides to create a special “transit-oriented” housing development district on the Bradford side of the river.

The city created a transit-oriented district on the downtown side of the river several years ago that spurred a number of large housing developments in old factory buildings. It also won the city several state grants to support development in the district.

The districts, which must revolve around various kinds of public transportation such as trains and buses, also requires a certain percentage of affordable housing units in new developments, city officials said.

Pillsbury said the Ornstein Heel property is one of the most attractive parcels for development in the city, and that he expects to see a project there in near future as the local real estate market continues to improve.

The sale of the Ornstein property to a housing developer, officials have said, would provide a one-two punch for the city: filling its coffers with much-needed cash and potentially sparking a building boom on the Bradford side of the river.

The city seized the wooded Ornstein site for nonpayment of taxes after several industrial buildings there were demolished in 1994. A proposal several years ago by a company called Merrimack Towers to buy the property for $3.4 million and build 136 garden-style condominiums in three buildings overlooking the water collapsed with the real estate market.

At his state of the city speech a year ago, Fiorentini told councilors he was preparing a new campaign to market and sell the property, under new rules that encourage market-rate housing and require developers to allow public access to the waterway.

Other properties near the Ornstein parcel that are ripe for development, officials have said, include a site once known as Hoyt and Worthen Tanning and the 23-acre Haverhill Paperboard parcel that has been the subject of recent discussions about a major development there.