A proposed layout for new residential buildings at a long-vacant brownfield site in St. Albans. Courtesy of City of St. Albans

St. Albans officials plan to build more than 100 units of mixed-income housing on portions of a long-blighted brownfield just north of the city’s downtown.

The former paper product manufacturing site on Lower Newton Street is already home to a newly-built railroad dispatch office, where a grand opening is planned this month. But the rest of the 5.5-acre site has sat vacant for more than a decade.

City Manager Dominic Cloud said St. Albans now has a preliminary agreement with Cathedral Square, a South Burlington-based developer, to build 33 housing units for people ages 55 and older on the site along Lower Newton Street. The housing would be available to households making between 30% and 80% of area median income.

Moreover, Cloud said the city is almost ready to issue a request for proposals to develop roughly 90 more units across several more new buildings on the site. The city wants these to be “workforce housing,” Cloud said, which is typically defined as housing that’s priced between 80% and 120% of area median income — $109,000 in St. Albans.

Cloud said the city government is willing to partner with developers to make construction more attractive, such as by offering subsidies or selling them the land at a reduced price.

“We know going into it that what we’re most interested in is workforce housing, and that’s the hardest to build — the so-called missing middle,” he said. “And we know that the market alone won’t do it.”

“Brownfield” is a term for property that’s been contaminated by industrial or commercial use. The Fonda Container Co. — a subsidiary of Solo Cup Co. — ended operations at the St. Albans site in 2005, and the city government bought it two years later, then cleared its buildings in 2011.

Previous environmental site assessments have found chemicals on the land, including asbestos, metals, PCBs, semi-volatile organic compounds and chlorinated volatile organic compounds.

Cloud said the city has completed environmental cleanup work on the entire site — including where housing would be built — and is now awaiting final approval from the state Agency of Natural Resources. He said the city is confident that the site has been cleaned to the highest standard for residential development and is safe.

Members of the natural resources agency’s brownfields program were unable to comment on the status of the cleanup project by press time Wednesday. 

St. Albans has received state and federal grants for cleanup and development work at the site, and voters in 2020 approved a $1 million bond to help fund the project.

The plans come at a time when communities in Franklin County, and across the state, face a critical need for new housing construction. Cloud pointed to a study published last month by the Northwest Regional Planning Commission, which found that Franklin and Grand Isle counties need 3,350 new or improved housing units to meet the needs of current residents, not to mention those expected to move to the area in the future.

Cindy Reid, Cathedral Square’s director of development, said her organization has nearly 200 people on a waitlist for an existing 44-unit development in St. Albans. Across all of its 27 housing communities, she said, the waitlist grows to about 1,300 people long.

In northwestern Vermont, “33 units honestly feels like a drop in the bucket compared to what the real need is,” Reid said Wednesday. “But we have to start somewhere.”

She said Cathedral Square plans to start building its new units next spring. 

Current city bylaws don’t allow residential development on the Lower Newton Street site, so city staff members have proposed a change in zoning — which is being reviewed by the St. Albans City Council — that would allow housing to be built. 

The amendment would also set aside at least 10% of the lot for open space and require that any new residential structures on the property include at least 10 units.

Cloud said he also thinks it’s worth investing public funds in new, mixed-income housing so that the city can attract new residents and grow its tax base. St. Albans’ population dropped by about 10% from 2000 to 2020, the housing study reported — by far the largest decline across all municipalities in Franklin and Grand Isle counties.

Meanwhile, neighboring St. Albans Town — which surrounds the city — and nearby Fairfax were the region’s fastest-growing communities over that time period. 

“If there’s new jobs coming to the county,” Cloud said, “but those workers decide to live in Colchester or Milton, and commute up — then we’ve left money on the table.”

VTDigger's northwestern Vermont reporter.