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Reuse Overlay Plan Backed

Nick Kotsopoulos Telegram & Gazette STAFF

WORCESTER- The City Council Land Use Committee last night endorsed the establishment of adaptive reuse overlay districts in two parts of the city to assist in the conversion of vacant buildings into housing.

One project involves the former St. Vincent Hospital on Vernon Hill, while the other is a former factory building in South Worcester. That building was the temporary home of the Worcester Public Library a few years ago while the main library at Salem Square was being renovated and expanded.

An adaptive overlay reuse district is intended to encourage the reuse of functionally obsolete buildings by providing developers more flexibility in developing those properties, according to Joel J. Fontane Jr., the city’s planning director.

Such a district maintains the existing zoning in the area, but it also allows certain other uses, and it relaxes dimensional and parking requirements. Under the city’s zoning ordinance, for instance, two parking spaces are required for each housing unit. With adaptive reuse, the requirement is 1.5 spaces per unit.

“This flexibility allows for the reuse of buildings that would probably remain under-utilized,” Mr. Fontane told the Land Use Committee.

Liberty Properties, which owns the former St. Vincent Hospital property, plans to convert the hospital’s main, seven-story building into 183 apartment units. It encompasses about 175,000 square feet of the 450,000-square-foot complex.

In November, the Zoning Board of Appeals granted a special permit allowing housing there. In January, the Planning Board recommended changing the zoning designation for the hospital property from institutional-hospital to business office. It also recommended applying an adaptive reuse overlay district over a portion of the rezoned area, including the hospital campus.

The three-member Land Use Committee embraced the plan for the hospital property, although it did not go along with other zoning changes proposed by the Planning Board in the area of Vernon and Dorchester streets.

District 3 Councilor Paul P. Clancy Jr. said he did not object to changing the underlying zone at the St. Vincent Hospital property to business-office, but felt that a recommended zone change in the Vernon Street area to residential-general would create nonconforming uses and potentially hurt business property owners in that area.

“I support this plan because we’re going to get the best reuse for this property,” Mr. Clancy said. “It’s a very difficult property to develop, but we need to protect the neighborhood as much as possible.”

In South Worcester, The Abrams Group, a Boston-based real estate development and investment firm, intends to buy the building at 160 Fremont St. and convert it into 97 condominiums.

The adaptive reuse overlay district for this project would be designated in an area roughly bounded by Fremont Street, Sutton Lane, St. John’s Road and Cambridge Street.

Because the area is a zone for manufacturing, housing is not allowed. But it would be allowed with an adaptive overlay reuse district.

For the overlay district to go into effect, the entire City Council must vote on it. The vote is likely to take place later this month.

District 5 Councilor Frederick C. Rushton said the two projects are symbols of Worcester moving forward. He said they will likely spur further development in both areas.

“This is a very creative approach to two difficult properties,” Mr. Rushton said.

Councilor-at-Large Michael C. Perotto, chairman of the Land Use Committee, said the city is fortunate to have two reputable developers willing to invest in Worcester.

“These are great projects, and they are going to be an asset to both neighborhoods,” he said.

In conjunction with the committee’s endorsement of adaptive reuse overlay districts for the two housing projects, Mr. Perotto also suggested that the committee recommend an advisory policy to encourage more home ownership.

He said he would like to see the Planning Board encourage developers who build housing in adaptive reuse overlay districts to set aside at least 50 percent of the units for ownership, while the other 50 percent could be rental.