Condos planned for former mill building

  • A building that is part of the former Strathmore mill complex along the Turners Falls Power Canal is the proposed location of condominiums and artist studios. Recorder Staff/Matt Burhartt

  • A building that is part of the former Strathmore factory along the Turners Falls Power Canal is the proposed location of condominiums and artist studios. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

Recorder Staff
Published: 3/22/2016 10:10:18 PM

TURNERS FALLS — A blighted building, a relic from the town’s paper mill heyday, might soon become condominiums with help from a new $2.24 million private redevelopment proposal.

The Strathmore Paper Mill is a complex on the Power Canal with some shattered and boarded-up windows. Despite the condition of the buildings, town officials are pushing to get them back on the tax rolls. The Board of Selectmen accepted a developer’s proposal on Monday night to rehabilitate one of the 10 vacant buildings.

The brick seven-story building slated for rehab is just 32,280 square feet of the roughly 270,000-square-foot complex on the island between the Power Canal and the Connecticut River, but town officials hope this could create a catalyst for other investors to see the potential in the remaining mill buildings, which have been vacant for more than 10 years.

“It is a way to prove that redevelopment is feasible. It should pave the way for future investment,” said Town Planner Walter Ramsey. He said that Turners Falls is seeing an influx of people getting priced out of the Northampton area and younger generations from New York City and Boston looking to escape the high rents of the city. Turners Falls, he said, has an urban feel with access to nature nearby.

Obear Construction

The investor, Obear Construction Co. of Montague, promises to preserve the architectural integrity of the building, which was built around 1906. The project is planned to rev up the local economy, create jobs and bring in up to $90,000 per year in property taxes, according to Ramsey.

The plan as it stands now is to turn the brick building into 16 to 20 condominiums with up to two floors of offices or workshop space, which would take up to four years to complete.

“We are hoping to attract artists and artisans who are in need of a live/work space, or simply those who want to live in a loft-type space,” Obear said in the proposal. He said he intends to offer some of the condos as “raw spaces,” with only the basic utilities in place with the idea that the condo owners will personalize each unit to their own specifications.

“It is likely that we will work with any future owner to customize the unit,” Obear said in the proposal.

Greenhouse

Obear also plans for a first-floor addition of an indoor greenhouse and sun park area. To reduce energy costs, the builders also plan to install solar panels on the roof. A porch for roof access is also planned.

The first floor will be largely reserved for storage space and mechanical rooms. Depending on the market, the second and third floors would could be transformed into workshops or artist studio space.

The plan would subdivide the building from the complex that once comprised the mill at 20 Canal Road. Going forward, the town could choose to seek investors for the remaining buildings or demolish them. Obear said many of the buildings are in disrepair and the town could level them.

After accepting the proposal for this single-building project, the next step is for town officials to negotiate a land development agreement with Obear to pinpoint commitments going forward. A sale of the town-owned land is still many months away, said Ramsey.

In the meantime, the developer will invest further into the design of the building, which was formerly a paper warehouse. The building is the only free-standing building in the complex, which makes it a feasible choice for the project, said Ramsey.

The town took ownership of the complex nearly six years ago, after a developer failed to transform the mill into a film production company. “The recession made the project fall offline. He was just ramping up the project in 2007 and it just fell out from under him,” said Ramsey. Now that the economy is getting better locally, the town is optimistic.

Obear was the only investor who responded to the town’s most recent request for proposals for the mill redevelopment. He is also conducting a major building rehab in Millers Falls on East Main Street, and is about halfway through the construction. He has already invested about $446,000 to breathe new life into the blighted building, known as the Powers Block.

‘Committed locally’

“They are committed locally,” said Ramsey. “They have a good understanding of the development atmosphere of Montague.” He said Obear Construction also has a good reputation throughout town.

Before the town accepted the proposal, it was vetted by the town planner, the town administrator and the building inspector. Officials determined that the company has the financial means and the development experience to execute the project.

The builders hope to receive a line of credit for about $2 million that can be drawn on in fixed segments over a few years. The units would most likely be marketed nationally to attract a larger pool of potential buyers.

“It is a big project. It’s a big building, it’s going to take a lot of money,” said Obear. He would consider putting in about $500,000 of his own money.

If all goes smoothly, the town would sell the building to Obear for $1 under the town’s commercial homesteading program, which aims to offer blighted buildings to developers for next to nothing in exchange for a commitment to invest in the future of the community.

In May, town officials will vote on whether to move forward with asbestos removal from the mill complex to prepare for the potential rehabilitation of the buildings.

Work needed

The Obear proposal comes with no shortage of obstacles. As a result of a fire in 2007, the east wall of the building is in need of repair and the roof is in need of replacement. Utility pipes that once connected to another building protrude from the outside. About $400,000 will be used during the first year for basic repairs.

On the south side of the building some bricks are loose, while some bricks are missing from the outside columns. Many of the brick mortar joints are soft. The contractor plans to replace any broken or missing bricks with bricks from the same period.

The building is also not currently connected to water, sewer or electricity. A fiber-optic line for phone and Internet would also need to be installed.

Utilities are a challenge in this spot because they must be connected over the canal and hooked up by way of a footbridge, called the Strathmore Pedestrian Bridge, which is currently closed. The town’s goal is to rehab the bridge, which would serve as a critical access point.

The Strathmore pedestrian bridge runs straight to a parking lot that the town is currently developing on the corner of Canal and Third streets. The proposed plan also includes the possibility of creating a parking lot or garage next to the building.

“We do not see these issues as unresolveable and we are willing to work with the town to help solve access and parking,” Obear said in the proposal.

The only other access point to the property is a narrow roadway that runs along the canal and connects the mill to a bridge, known locally as the Fifth Street Bridge.

“As a local Montague-based developer, Obear is going into this with eyes open and sees the merit in attempting to work through these utility and access site challenges in partnership with the town,” said Ramsey.




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