Haverhill City Councilors upheld a more than 50-year policy of requiring first-floor storefronts be maintained at downtown buildings.
A modified proposal to eliminate all commercial spaces, except for a rental office, at 1 Water St. was defeated by a 6-2 vote Tuesday night. Attorney Michael J. Migliori, representing DSF Water Street, asked councilors to convert five street-facing commercial spaces into five apartments. He argued the nine-story building across from Central Plaza, shouldn’t be considered part of downtown.
“Although this building at 1 Water St. is considered as part of the downtown area, in my opinion, it really isn’t. It’s more like an island. It’s isolated from the downtown rather than being truly part of the downtown. I think you’ll all agree there is no foot traffic in that area of Water Street nor is there any traction to support any appropriate commercial enterprise,” he said.
Yureidy Medina Construction Associate at The DSF Group of Waltham also attended remotely. The company bought the building shortly after councilors allowed one commercial space with no street frontage to be converted into three apartments. Since then, Migliori said, the owners spent $500,000 in improvements such as adding a gym and fitness area, replacing awnings and carpets, painting and installing new entry systems and signage.
A majority of councilors said the new owners haven’t put in the necessary effort to market and rent the spaces. Councilor Joseph J. Bevilacqua disagreed with Migliori’s characterization of the area as an island.
“I understand there is opportunity today for commercial space, but you have to let people know it is available and you have to let people know the terms and make them attractive, particularly during these times,” he said.
Most councilors backed Economic Development and Planning Director William Pillsbury Jr., who recommended against allowing the conversion.
Ann Marie Putnam of Derry, N.H., opposed the conversion. She said her late aunt was a 25-year-resident of the building and the building’s management made improvements at the expense of tenant amenities such as a community room. Putnam added the company rents the now-unused commercial parking spaces for $500 a month.
Councilors Thomas J. Sullivan and Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien, the only members voting to approve the plan, said commercial space is a tough sell. O’Brien noted that Home Health Visiting Nurse Association left the water Street space years ago because of a lack of parking. Sullivan noted councilors recently approved an exception on Washington Street just above the downtown. In that case, the majority granted permission to developer Timothy Woodland to add three residences on the first floor of a building at 149-153 Washington St.
Council President Melinda E. Barrett pointed out she opposed the Washington Street conversion and finds the Water Street owners arguments unconvincing.
“The previous owners loved to say they were part of downtown when they wanted parking in our parking garage. Then they didn’t want to be part of downtown when they wanted apartments,” she said.
Councilor John A. Michitson said a lack of parking takes away all options. “I think the biggest problem here is that there is no good solution—either residential or commercial,” he said. Michitson noted, however, that more people will continue working from home and the city’s new master plan calls for more village spaces to accommodate them.