March 19, 2003


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Zoning change for LePage's approved

By RICHARD GAINES

Staff writer

The City Council last night took a preliminary step to satisfy the city's need for affordable housing by approving a zoning change that allows the conversion of the former LePage's glue factory property into an estimated 115 apartments and condominiums.

The nearly 21 acres, with nine buildings and a pond, at 147 Essex Ave. "is so perfect" for the proposed affordable housing, Janet Steluto told the council.

"It's on a water and sewer line and a state highway, and a walk to the (West Gloucester) railroad station," she said. "Except it's zoned for industrial. And that can be made perfect, too."

She is a member of the board of directors of the non-profit Cape Ann Housing Opportunity, Inc., which purchased the property for $2.5 million last August.

Moments after her statement, the council granted her wish. With praise for CAHO, the council voted unanimously to rezone the property for "village business."

The change allows CAHO to include "live-work" space, cafes and convenience shops in the adaptive reuse plan, which was inspired by the call for affordable housing in the Gloucester 2001 Community Development Plan that Steluto helped write.

CAHO was created at the end of 2001 when the glue factory operation wound down and the property's acquisition for adaptation to housing became possible.

But its transformation from drawing board into one of Gloucester's largest affordable housing developments remains many seasons and decisions away.

Nancy Schwoyer, director of Wellspring and a principal in CAHO, said a preliminary feasibility study done for the group by architects at Bergmeyer Associates of Boston provided the best possible news: Six of the nine former LePage's buildings are, in design and structure, ideally suited to conversion into one-, two- and three-bedroom units. And the property itself is environmentally clean.

"The property has been well managed," she said.

But many decisions -- including whether CAHO should serve as the prime developer or a professional developer should be hired -- remain to be made.

Ward 5 Councilor Astrid af Klinteberg made clear her opinion on that question, telling CAHO: "Don't farm out development. You're a model for how to do affordable housing."

Schwoyer said that ground-breaking on what is expected to be a $20 million rehabilitation and construction project, producing homes for up to 250 primarily Cape Ann residents and parking for 180 vehicles, could not begin until a year from now.

"We hope to be in the ground, doing something by the spring 2004," Schwoyer said.

CAHO has already incurred significant expenses in maintaining the property throughout the long winter, including heating, taxes and insurance.

Although the owner is a non-profit corporation, the property itself will be fully taxed, with the ultimate nature of the housing dependent on the forms of financing that are chosen.

Schwoyer said preliminary plans were to mix about 40 rental units in with about 75 condominium units, in a mix of affordable and market rates.

LePage's was making glue on the property for many years before Gloucester adopted its first zoning map, and fit the designation for the land to the pre-existing use, said CAHO attorney Robert Coakley in a presentation at the start of the hearing. The site has withstood heavier use than what CAHO proposes, he said. At its peak, LePage's was running three shifts of up to 70 employees each working "24/7."

Mike Davis, a Bergmeyer architect who led the feasibility study, told the council CAHO had requested a "village business" zoning for the property to give it more diverse activities than could be expected from a design for just living space. "This project will be a new village in the city of Gloucester."

Davis said the site was large enough to contain all staging and storage for the construction."

Dick Josephson, an executive at Varian, the city's largest employer, said the housing the CAHO project will bring to the cape will help keep "talented people here.

"We bring people into the city," he said, "but due to sticker shock, they often move elsewhere."


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