Unspoken Ornsteen Site Option May Have Weighed Heavily on Haverhill Council Vote

Haverhill City Council. (WHAV News file photograph.)

Haverhill City Council. (WHAV News file photograph.)

Tuesday night’s Haverhill City Council vote rejecting a mix of affordable and market rate apartments may have had more to do with an unspoken alternative than the plan in front of the body.

Councilors voted 6-2 against naming Neighborhood of Affordable Housing as the preferred developer of the city-owned Ornsteen Heel property near the Bradford train station. They cited unclear financing and a lengthy completion timeline as obstacles. However, most councilors knew of a plan in the wings to build 144 market rate apartments instead. While there are challenges at the 31-35 Railroad Ave. site, Lowell-based Princeton Properties CEO Andrew M. Chaban sees an unusual opportunity.

“It’s rare that we see parcels that have these kinds of characteristics,” Chaban told WHAV. He noted the site’s nearness to the Bradford commuter rail stop, riverside aesthetics and walkability to downtown. “Everything about real estate is location, location, location,” Chaban said, adding “We have a particular vision for the site that we think makes some sense.”

Former Rep. Brian S. Dempsey.

Princeton Properties was unaware of the city’s request for proposals for the former industrial site until after the most recent deadline. But the company, which recently acquired an ownership interest in the Forest Acres apartment complex, made its interest known. The company retained former state Rep. Brian S. Dempsey, senior vice president and chief operating officer of M. L. Strategies, as a lobbyist.

Although it is too early to assemble a formal plan, Chaban said various site problems require any developer to seek financing help. Those problems include lack of sidewalks, streets, utilities and mandated river protection setbacks. “A tool in the tool box,” he said, is a state program just for Gateway cities like Haverhill. The Housing Development Incentive Program offers temporary local tax breaks and possible state tax credits. Mayor James J. Fiorentini told WHAV the company insisted on large tax breaks, which he finds unacceptable.

Anything formal from Princeton, though, awaits the city’s issuance of yet another request for proposals. The mayor said that won’t happen anytime soon. He said he first intends to work with runner-up Marshland Street LLC of Seabrook, N.H. Marshland offered $500,000 to buy the property and build 130 market rate apartments. A third plan didn’t meet bid requirements and wasn’t accepted.

Dempsey told WHAV Princeton Properties is a “very well-respected owner/operator” of housing across the Merrimack Valley. He cited the company’s $4 or $5 million additional investment in Forest Acres as an example of its commitment.

Several times during the hearing on Neighborhood of Affordable Housing organization’s plan, councilors hinted at Princeton Properties’ behind-the-scenes work. None mentioned the company by name or Dempsey’s role.

How Chaban Became Interested

Haverhill businessman Joseph D’Orazio made introductions. (Courtesy photograph.)

Chaban knows Haverhill businessman Joseph D’Orazio through local basketball circles. Learning of Princeton Properties’ interests—which include 7,000 apartments in and around the Merrimack Valley dating back to 1973, D’Orazio introduced the developer to Ronald G. Trombley, manager of Greater Haverhill Foundation and downtown’s Harbor Place.

The three toured Harbor Place and the Brian S. Dempsey Boardwalk. It was then suggested Chaban take a look at the Ornsteen property on the other side of the river.

The mayor said he urges Princeton properties to consider the former Haverhill Paperboard site. “I would love to have them invest in Haverhill,” he said.