Business & Economy

Brattleboro exploring a pair of plans to build hundreds of housing units

The owners of the former Austine School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing are exploring the creation of several hundred new housing units on their Brattleboro property. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — With a new study finding this town needs at least 500 more housing units, public and private leaders are proposing to add hundreds of new homes and apartments.

One plan comes from the nonprofit Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development, which owns the grounds of the former century-old Austine School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. It is working with the neighboring Omega Optical and its Delta Campus to explore building up to 500 new housing units on their combined 300-acre property.

Brattleboro town government is behind a second proposal, asking the developers of downtown’s Brooks House apartment and business block if it’s feasible to build a residential building up to five stories tall on a municipal parking lot at Harris Place.

A recent town-commissioned study has found a shortage of local housing, especially for individuals and families making less than $50,000 a year. As a result, 70% of Brattleboro’s workers live in other communities, according to the research.

“Lack of housing is a primary constraint on attracting workforce, putting downward pressure on economic development,” the Winston Prouty Center has written to local leaders. “Getting housing units online is a critical priority.”

The child and family center purchased the Austine School property in 2016. To make ownership financially sustainable, it has formed the Prouty Delta Development Initiative with its Omega-owned neighbor to study joint uses of their land.

“Our goal is to develop neighborhoods of diverse housing types — multifamily, single family, tiny homes, apartment buildings with a mix of ownership and rental opportunities,” the project’s planners wrote to local leaders. “We want to create integrated housing options for families, workers, the elderly and young adults.”

The initiative — working with the town government, the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. and Windham Regional Commission — has received a state planning grant to study water and sewer infrastructure, all in hopes of launching the first phase of the project within two years.

“We’re putting out a lot of feelers and requests for money to start getting resources for master planning and thinking about permitting and engineering,” Winston Prouty Executive Director Chloe Learey said.

Added Delta Campus administrator David McManus: “We have like priorities and similar goals, and so it just made sense to us to keep pursuing this partnership.”

In a separate proposal, Brattleboro’s town government is allowing the local M&S Development firm to study the feasibility of turning the current Harris Lot parking area into an apartment building with the possibility of an underground parking garage.

The Brattleboro town government has commissioned a feasibility study on a proposal to build an apartment building on a municipal parking lot at Harris Place. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

M&S, headed by Brattleboro engineer Robert Stevens, is known for restoring downtown’s Brooks House after a 2011 fire and for revitalizing the Putnam Block in Bennington.

“The new mixed-income housing proposed in this project will provide significant value to community members and help alleviate some of the pressures caused by Brattleboro’s tight rental market,” Stevens wrote in a letter to local leaders.

Any building would come with roadblocks, starting with the fact that the property sits on a steep slope near railroad tracks and the Connecticut River.

“The project also poses funding challenges, given the region’s mismatch between the cost of creating new housing and what the rental market can carry,” Stevens wrote. “We believe this project is only possible as a true public-private partnership with the town.”

M&S expects to present a proposal within six months, at which time the Brattleboro Selectboard will consider whether to pursue the idea and submit the plan for Town Meeting consideration.

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