HAVERHILL — A long-vacant, four-story brick building in the heart of the otherwise thriving downtown is about to come back to life.
The building at 87 Washington St., which more than a decade ago housed Trattoria Al Forno restaurant, is about to become mixed-use development with a new eatery or retail store on the ground floor and upper level loft-style apartments.
A groundbreaking ceremony recently happened inside the building, where developer David Traggorth of Traggorth Companies of Boston recalled his first big project in Haverhill.
He was joined by Mayor James Fiorentini, Economic Development Director William Pillsbury, representatives from Healthy Neighborhood Equity Fund and local and state officials including state Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, and City Councilor Joseph Bevilacqua.
In 2016, Traggorth transformed the former Surplus Office Supply building at 37 Washington St. into JM Lofts, which features market-rate housing on upper floors and businesses on the ground-floor.
Traggorth said his latest project will feature 24 market-rate loft apartments and 3,500 square feet of retail space. Preliminary construction has begun and the expected completion date is toward the end of 2019, he said.
He said it is important to create housing in gateway cities such as Haverhill, and that the housing be close to a transportation hub such as the downtown train station, and also in areas where residents are close to dining and shopping.
"People want the ability to hop on a train to Boston," he said.
During the groundbreaking, Traggorth talked about the success of the JM Lofts building, which in addition to apartments, also houses three businesses: Battle Grounds Coffee Company; the Switchboard, an art-focused business; and Quinn's Canine Cafe, where dogs and their owners can socialize.
"Creating an environment where an art gallery, a dog biscuit company and a coffee shop can open and collaborate ... that to me is by far the most rewarding part of this," Traggorth said.
Pillsbury said Traggorth had a good experience with the city during the JM Lofts project and that he liked the way the city and mayor's office worked with him.
"We're glad he came back for this project," Pillsbury said.
Bevilacqua said he remembers when the building last housed a restaurant — the last business that occupied it more than a decade ago.
"It's good to see it coming back to life,'' he said.
Fiorentini said the building, which is across the street from the Garibaldi Club, is the last major vacant downtown building available for redevelopment.
“This is another exciting, transformative development as we continue our efforts to grow and energize downtown Haverhill,” Fiorentini said, noting this is the second large redevelopment project in downtown Haverhill by Traggorth. "My administration tries to make permitting and the overall process of redeveloping downtown properties as easy as possible, and this is yet another example of that approach paying off."
"We're excited to celebrate this important milestone with Mayor Fiorentini and our other partners building on a successful collaboration that started with JM Lofts and continues to bring these beautiful landmark historic buildings back to life in downtown Haverhill," Traggorth said.
The project took advantage of state historic tax credits to restore many of the historic characteristics of the original 87 Washington St. building -- one of dozens of brick structures built downtown following the Great Fire of 1882 that destroyed many wooden buildings in the area, Fiorentini said.
"They used old photos and other research to make the new building look as much like the original building as possible," the mayor said. "This new housing will offer an urban life style for people who want that, while at the same time providing customers for the many great restaurants on Washington Street."
The alleys behind and on both sides of the 87 Washington St. building will also be renovated, and an accessibility ramp with a protective canopy will be installed, officials said.
The organizations providing money for this project include MassDevelopment and the Healthy Neighborhoods Equity Fund, which is a joint venture between the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corporation and Conservation Law Foundation, officials said.