By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Mayor James Fiorentini said he is open to suggestions in drawing the boundaries of a new downtown zone aimed at spurring projects that include market-rate housing in under-used old factory buildings.
Fiorentini is asking the City Council to approve the plan, which relies on a new state program called Chapter 40V that makes tax breaks and other financial incentives available to developers that build market-rate housing. Similar state programs in the past have focused on homes for low-income people. The mayor said the state has $5 million available to subsidize market-rate housing projects in Haverhill and other so-called Gateway Cities.
"In the past, these tax credits have been for low-income housing only, but we want to add market-rate housing to our downtown," Fiorentini said. "If we adopt this new law and designate Merrimack Street and parts of the riverfront in Bradford as our 40V district, we will be able to encourage market-rate housing in our downtown and along the river."
City Council agreed to hold a public hearing on the proposal April 16, and to vote after the hearing.
Councilor William Ryan said the sooner the city adopts the 40V law and establishes the development zone, the better the chances it will have of receiving money.
"It's only $5 million, so you know it's going to go fast," Ryan said. "We need to be aggressive and get in their first, to bring people with disposable income to help our stores and businesses."
The mayor said a similar downtown zone the city established about eight years ago led to the redevelopment of several old factory buildings and more than 500 new apartments and condos in the area.
"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."
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.