HAVERHILL — It’s being touted as the savior of downtown, the thing that will boost the area’s economic revival and provide the city with much-needed tax money.

Developers are converting old shoe factory buildings into apartments and condominiums — more than 800 units at last count. The mayor and other proponents said the people moving in will be young professionals with plenty of money to spend in restaurants, lounges and shops within walking distance of their new homes.

But several of the projects have a large percentage of their units set aside for so-called “affordable housing,” meaning their tenants will have lower than market-rate rents. Critics said that means many people who lack the kind of extra income businesses hope they will spend also will move downtown.

Forest City Enterprises of Cleveland, which plans the biggest housing complex in Haverhill’s history — 305 apartments in an old shoe factory complex downtown — landed a $49 million low-interest financing package from the state this week. It requires 20 percent of the apartments, in this case 61, to be kept “affordable” for lower-income people. Those will be tenants who make up to 50 percent of the area’s median family income of about $60,000, state housing officials said.

A block away is another old building being taken over by the Archdiocese of Boston, which will have 24 affordable units. Critics of that project and others with affordable housing have said they fear the income levels of tenants will be too low to boost downtown, and that the condition of those units could deteriorate over time.

So the debate is on: Will the sweeping changes bringing all these apartments and condos to the heart of the city be worth it?

Alan Boisvert, owner of Keon’s at 105 Washington St., said if 20 percent of the 800 units planned for downtown were affordable housing, it would still leave more than 600 that aren’t and are likely to house people with money to spend in downtown businesses.

“When doing projects this big, you have to allow for a certain percentage of affordable housing. It’s only fair,” Boisvert said. “I think there’ll be at least 600 new households within walking distance that aren’t affordable housing, and that can only make things better for us.”

John Fahimian, owner of The Tap Brewpub, 100 Washington St., doesn’t see the influx of downtown residents as creating a business boom, regardless of their incomes. He said residential growth downtown is creating a “bedroom community” where people go to work during the day and return home at night, but don’t necessarily spend a lot of time dining or shopping near where they live.

“The downtown will be affected somewhat, but not as much as you might expect,” he said. “What would really make things better is a mix of office buildings and retail — like in downtown Boston. There has to be more commercial development in the downtown.”

Fahimian applauds the conversion of what he called “dilapidated and underutilized” factory buildings by turning them into modern apartment buildings.

“You’ve got 60,000 residents in Haverhill, and many of them don’t perceive of the downtown as a good place to go,” he said. “Getting rid of these dilapidated buildings will help change the perception of the downtown as a nice place to be. It will make people who live in Haverhill believe the downtown is a nice, clean area.”

Mayor James Fiorentini said he has no concern about the affordable housing. He said the state zoning rules for these projects actually allow people with 80 percent of the area’s median income to move into the affordable housing.

“We like to call it work force housing,” he said. “City employees, starting school teachers will be eligible. ... We want them downtown.”

Fiorentini said his only concern with the state’s affordable housing rules was a requirement that a certain percentage of units in a project have three bedrooms, but the state waived that requirement for Haverhill. The city wanted few families in downtown units and prefers single people, he said.

Most of the old shoe factory buildings targeted by developers have been vacant for 25 years or more. They are dinosaurs from Haverhill’s heyday as a leading maker of women’s shoes.

The Planning Office for Urban Affairs, a private, nonprofit development arm of the Archdiocese of Boston, plans 57 apartments at the Charles H. Hayes Building at 14-36 Granite St. The $18 million project has been approved by the City Council under the so-called 40R zoning law. That same law, which requires at least 20 percent affordable housing, is being used by other developers in downtown Haverhill. The Hayes Building will have 24 affordable units.

City Councilor William Macek, a businessman who has been deeply involved in trying to solve the parking problem downtown, said few people have disposable income because of rising energy costs. That includes people moving into downtown apartments and condos, which has an effect on local merchants, he said.

“In a sense, we’re all on a fixed income,” Macek said. “People are not out freely spending money.”

One surprise for him was that the popular business Hungry Lion Imports on Washington Street is going out of business even as downtown is growing.

But he is optimistic about the long-term prospects for downtown when the number of apartments and condos reaches 800 or 1,000 — the level experts said is the tipping point.

“One thing that has to be considered is we are quite far from having a completed downtown,” Macek said.

Councilor William Ryan said he took a walk downtown on New Year’s Day and strolled through the parking lot at The Cordovan, the new apartment complex off Locust Street.

It was full of expensive cars, he said.

“Anyone who can own all the nice cars down there can certainly afford to go to a nice restaurant,” Ryan said.

He said restaurant owners and retailers need to do direct mail and advertisements to let the new residents know they exist.

“What local restaurants need to do is try to entice them,” Ryan said. “They have to continue to remind people they don’t have to drive. They can walk and have dinner.”

Recommended for you