By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Mayor James Fiorentini is hoping to spur a new building boom downtown, similar to the one that led to the reuse of old factories and more than 500 new apartments and condos in the area.
Fiorentini laid out his ambitious plan for rezoning large swaths of land along the Merrimack River at his State of the City speech last week. The crux of it is to spur redevelopment of other under-used buildings by helping developers qualify for state tax breaks and other financial incentives.
The mayor can’t do it without the City Council’s help, however. Tonight, he will ask councilors to approve a special housing development zone for much land on both sides of the river — property along the downtown and Bradford sides of the waterway.
The council is expected to schedule a public hearing on the plan April 9 at City Hall, and also vote on the proposal that night.
Formation of the zone would allow developers who build market-rate housing to qualify for tax breaks under a new state program.
“The city is currently in discussions with several developers interested in constructing mixed-use projects within the boundaries of the zone,” a document outlining the mayor’s proposal said. “It is expected that as these discussions continue, the proposed projects will meet the specifications of the Housing Development Plan and these developers will be applying for Tax Increment Exemptions.”
Fiorentini said a similar zoning plan about a decade ago led to several large factory-to-housing proposals that produced 268 market-rate homes and about 250 affordable and subsidized units in the western end of downtown. Those housing developments are 96 percent occupied, according to the proposal.
The mayor said his new plan is designed to target vacant upper floors in many large downtown buildings, especially on Merrimack Street — the eastern end of downtown.
“These buildings, because of their location in the heart of downtown, adjacent to Washington Street and its numerous restaurants and next to the Merrimack River, are prime locations for market-rate housing,” according to the mayor’s proposal. “The implementation of the plan will increase pedestrian activity, generate new tax revenue, decrease downtown’s vacancy rate, promote upper-story development and rehabilitate historical buildings.”
Fiorentini said the city is using a $1.2 million state grant to repair and improve the Merrimack Street parking garage to support more housing. Parking is critical to the plan because tenants will need parking.
On the Washington Street end of downtown, the mayor’s proposal says there are 135 parking spaces in the new 315-space parking garage that are currently available for “new residential developments downtown to lease” for tenants. In the garage, 180 spaces are currently being leased by nearby residential developments, the plan said.
The city also has state money to improve the Merrimack Street area. It will be used to plant trees, build and rehabilitate sidewalks and install lighting and benches along the street, the river and the new rail trail recreations pathway on the Bradford side of downtown, the mayor said.