By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Three development companies have already expressed “preliminary interest” in buying the city-owned Ornsteen Heel property on the Bradford side of the Merrimack River, Mayor James Fiorentini told City Council last night.
Fiorentini’s report on the former factory building site at 31-35 Railroad Ave. preceded the council’s unanimous vote to surplus the land, which allows the mayor to put it up for sale and seek development proposals.
The parcel is assessed for $771,800, but city officials believe the property is potentially much more valuable given its size and location on the banks of the river. In 2004, a company called Merrimack Towers planned to buy the property for $3.4 million and build 136 garden-style condominiums in three buildings overlooking the river. That deal collapsed with the real estate market, however.
The city seized the wooded site for nonpayment of taxes after several industrial buildings there were demolished in 1994.
Fiorentini said he will immediately begin soliciting proposals for the site and form a committee to review them. According to the measure passed last night, the council has final say over who the land is sold to and for what purpose.
The mayor said a large housing development with possibly some commercial space is the likeliest use of the property.
Although the property is currently zoned for industrial use only, Fiorentini said he will soon ask the council to pass new rules allowing housing on the Ornsteen land as well as other former industrial sites nearby.
The mayor said he will insist that any future buyer of the Ornsteen property agree to provide public access in the form of a 15-foot wide strip of land near the river.
That would allow the city’s burgeoning rail trail being built on the Bradford side of the river to eventually pass through the property, he said.
“I want viewing corridors and physical access to the river,” the mayor said.
City Councilor William Macek said he urged the mayor in recent years not to put the property up for sale until the real estate market improved.
“But now is the time to try to again, because we will be at the front of the line as the real estate market starts to come back,” Macek said.
Fiorentini said he has formed a committee to remake zoning rules on the Bradford side of the river with an eye toward sparking the kind of building boom that began about a decade ago on the downtown side of the waterway. The downtown building boom was triggered by zoning changes that paved the way for a number of large housing developments in old factory buildings.
“This could really change the demographics over there,” Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien said of a potential housing development at the Ornsteen site. “It’s been a wasteland over there for some time.”
Other properties near the Ornsteen parcel that are ripe for development, the mayor has 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 by its private owner about a major development there.