EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 20, 2014

Site seen as key to housing boom

A company backed out of buying the site for $3.4M and building 134 condos several years ago

By Shawn Regan

---- — HAVERHILL — The city is positioning the long dormant Ornstein Heel property as the catalyst for a potential residential building boom on the Bradford side of the Merrimack River.

City Council recently approved a new waterfront zone giving it less oversight of proposals along the river, 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 now, Mayor James Fiorentini wants to give back the council control of the city-owned Ornstein Heel property.

Economic Development Director William Pillsbury said the change back would potentially 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, Pillsbury said.

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, Pillsbury 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 in March, 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.