PORTSMOUTH — The Portsmouth Housing Authority’s plan to build a 64-unit workforce housing development in the city’s downtown has received a key approval.
The Historic District Commission voted unanimously to approve the four-story building plan for what is now a parking lot between Central Fire Station and Feaster Apartments off Court Street.
The project at 140 and 152 Court St., is also planned to include a two-story liner building that will be closer to Court Street, a 9,000-square-foot public park and a 350-square-foot enclosed museum space holding the Fire Department’s restored Kearsarge Fire Engine, according to PHA Executive Director Craig Welch.
Wednesday’s HDC meeting marked the sixth time the PHA appeared before the commission, Welch said Thursday.
“What we came out with is something the people of Portsmouth can be very proud of,” Welch said. “It’s not often that a project comes in front of these land-use boards that people are so thirsty for.”
City officials, businesses and community groups have been talking for years about the need for affordable and workforce housing in Portsmouth. But all of the new condos and apartments being built in the city have been priced at market rate. Welch believes that’s why “you need strong nonprofits that are actively developing affordable housing. Our only interest is in providing permanently affordable housing for people in Portsmouth.”
Developments like the one the PHA is proposing are crucial for the city, he believes. “We need to do whatever we can to maintain the diversity of housing in Portsmouth,” he said. “Otherwise, it just changes the character of the city. I really believe that.”
The 64 apartments, include 48 one-bedroom units and 16 two-bedroom units, Welch said. About two-thirds of the 64 units will rent to people who earn 60 percent of the city’s median income or lower, and the rest will rent at “below market rates,” Welch said.
“The goal remains that we hope to be renting to people who make at or around $44,000 a year,” he added.
The PHA still needs site-plan approval from the Planning Board to move forward. The plan is scheduled to go before the board in August. The PHA also still needs to receive federal tax credits so it can finance the project, Welch said.
The New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority is expected to make a decision on whether to award the PHA the tax credits by the end of 2019, he said. “We would like to break ground in the spring of 2019 if everything goes perfectly,” Welch said.
If that happens, the PHA plans to have the buildings finished and occupied by the end of 2020.
Architect Carla Goodknight of CJ Architects, who designed the project for the PHA, told the HDC she was “very excited” to be at Wednesday’s meeting, because the PHA was proposing to build “64 units of affordable housing in the historic district.” She added the public park space will “be a wonderful addition to what is now a paved parking area.”
HDC Vice Chairman Jon Wyckoff, who made the motion to approve the project, said he was “quite happy at the improvements and the changes” to the project as it was reviewed by the commission.
“Certainly, it’s been a long process,” he said, “but I feel that you’ve done a good job of constructing or planning a rather large building that does not look large. It does not get into your face. It tends to blend into the background. I think the liner building helps that.”
HDC member Richard Shea said the “scale is way better than what you started out with.” “I know it’s a big building (and) it’s really hard to make these large buildings interesting,” he said, “but I think you did the best with what you have as the budget.”