On first blush, if you look at the onetime site of the Registry of Motor Vehicles on upper Union Street, you’d think the site is too small for the planned five-story building with 53 residential apartments.

But New Bedford is in the midst of a terrible housing crisis, with rents increasing by as much as $200 and $300 a month and more over the last several years. Whatever is driving that rise, the consensus seems to be that the city needs more affordable housing, and this project will add affordable units. Denser development in the downtown and similar neighborhoods is one of the ways to accomplish that.

In all honesty, the site where “10 and Eighth Street Apartments” will be built is bigger than it looks from Union. The parking lot for the present one-story structure facing the downtown’s main thoroughfare expands in the back to an area about twice as wide and long, fronting out to Spring Street in the rear and Eighth Street on the side.

The 85,000-square-foot development planned by Duane Jackson will include a couple of commercial storefronts on Union, an entrance on Eighth, and balconies on some of the upper-floor residential units. It has a fairly utilitarian design, attractive but plain. It’s not going to win any design awards.

“It’s not exactly the structure of a cathedral or the Parthenon, but this isn’t Paris or Athens,” said Zoning Board of Appeals member Stephen Brown wryly before giving the project his blessing a few weeks ago. Three other ZBA members — Chair Laura Parrish, vice chair Celeste Paleologos, and member Bob Schilling — quickly approved it unanimously.

Many so-called mixed-income developments include a relatively small number of affordable units. Chris Saunders, the attorney for the developer, told the Planning Board in September that this one is primarily about affordable units. Though the numbers are not yet finalized, the plan is to make a full 81% of the units affordable and just 19% market-rate. Some 68% would be for individuals earning 60% of the average median income, or $50,460 and some 30% would be for individuals earning 30% of the median, or $26,500.The developer is applying for state Department of Community and Housing Development grants. “We are looking to create good quality, affordable housing for people who live in the city of New Bedford,” said Saunders.

“I think it’s a great addition to the city,” said Parish, with Schilling agreeing and Paleologos “totally” agreeing.

The development has been designed to fit in with the downtown — it uses tan and yellow materials similar to the greystone at the former Webster Bank and New Bedford Harbor Hotel down the street. At five stories, it’s a good size, but shorter than the radio tower next door or the nearby First Unitarian Church. It will have an underground parking garage for 19 vehicles and an arrangement with the Harbor Hotel for additional parking down the street. 

It’s certainly a better edifice than the one that housed the registry. “I think it’s a top-notch building,” said Chris Saunders, who is representing Jackson on the deal.

Whatever the arguments, pro and con, it’s hard to argue against projects like this when so few developers have built anything in the downtown for such a long time — and when unaffordable rents and mortgages continue to drive residents out of the city.

You may remember Jackson from a while back. Fifteen or so years ago, he led a group proposing a $150 million project that would have reinvented the Fairhaven Mills building as a mixed-use complex that would have included offices, housing, a hotel, supermarket and marina. It was certainly a more distinctive plan than what eventually got built at the site of the early 20th-century mill that used to look out over the Acushnet River like a gateway to the city.

That development, however, would have needed to have been significantly subsidized by government tax credits, and the city instead put the parcel out to bid for what eventually became Riverside Landing project anchored by the popular Market Basket supermarket.

Saunders, in his presentation to the ZBA, placed the upper Union Street building in the context of what’s going on with housing costs in the city.

“It’s going to promote social and economic and community needs,” he told the board members. “We’re going to provide safe and affordable housing for the people in New Bedford.”

It’s been about 15 years since New Bedford has had any kind of large-scale housing built in the downtown. Toward the end of the Kalisz administration and the beginning of the Lang administration, the Union Street Lofts came online with renovations of the historic Coffin, Bristol and Lawton’s Corner buildings.

An artist’s rendition of the proposed 53-unit residential building planned for upper Union Street. Credit: Image provided by Alinea
The site of the former Registry building on Union Street in New Bedford, where a development with 53 residential apartments is planned. Credit: Jack Spillane / New Bedford Light

Since then, the conventional wisdom has been that you could not do unsubsidized residential development in the downtown because the money you would make from the residential units would not provide an adequate return on the investment. That may have changed in the last year or so as residential developments are now in the works for both lower and mid-Union Street, as well as one at the intersection of Elm and Route 18.

Ten and Eighth is not without its critics, most pointedly the abuttors.

When it was first unveiled, Harold Cooper, who owns a series of single-story storefronts on the southside called it too dense and said it needed more parking. Bill Pappas, who owns Minerva’s, also criticized the parking and traffic, though Saunders argues that the deal with the Harbor Hotel addresses those problems and other issues raised by the abuttors.

Cynthia Shaw Furtado, a lawyer whose office abuts on Spring Street, wrote to the ZBA that the proposal does not “present evidence or meet the criteria” for the special permit it was granted.

It remains to be seen whether anyone will bring a legal challenge.

Saunders says he expects it will be about a year before Jackson breaks ground as he works out his financing.

Whatever the arguments, pro and con, it’s hard to argue against projects like this when so few developers have built anything in the downtown for such a long time — and when unaffordable rents and mortgages continue to drive residents out of the city.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

Editor’s note: This column was updated on Dec. 2, 2021, to include additional information about the number of affordable apartments planned.

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