CHATHAM – In the past, summer workers could count on finding a room in one of the town's many dormitories or rooming houses, many of which were located in the Old Village and downtown.
Today, those locations represent some of the town's priciest real estate, and places like the Hawes House and the Epicure dorms have given way to private residences or upscale condos.
But with the scarcity of workforce housing making finding summer workers a challenge, those sort of seasonal living arrangements may once again make sense. The first dormitory to be located downtown in decades is now on its way toward final approvals by the town.
“There's a huge demand for this kind of housing,” William Riley, the attorney for 595 Main St. LLC, told the zoning board of appeals last Thursday. Board members agreed, unanimously granting a special permit for an 18-bed dorm on the lower level of the commercial structure known as the Colonial Building.
Previously, the space was used for storage, and before that it was several retail units. Recently the front of the lower level, which faces the parking lot adjacent to the Chatham Orpheum Theater, went through some alteration based on a previous proposal that would have seen the space converted to a garage, said owner Ronald Rudnick.
Initially, he said, he planned to convert a warehouse he owns behind Chatham Village Market into a dorm to house summer workers, but neighbors weren't happy about the idea.
“We decided this was a better place” for workforce housing, Riley said of the Colonial Building, which also includes restaurant and retail space on the first floor facing Main Street, as well as apartments on the second floor.
“It's a really good use of the property,” Riley said. Rudnick also owns the Master Mariner in West Chatham, which also houses summer workers; most, Riley, said, are college students from Europe who work several jobs and travel by bicycle, so being downtown will be an advantage for them.
“It's not the most attractive area; it's a parking lot,” Riley said of the building's surroundings. “But for these youngsters, most of whom are college students from Europe, it's a suitable area for them.”
Under the proposal, the interior will be renovated into nine bedrooms, each with two beds and a bathroom. There will also be a common kitchen and lounge area. Rudnick said he's had good luck with a similar arrangement at the Master Mariner; a letter from Chief of Police Mark Pawlina lauded Rudnick's management of the facility and his ability to resolve the few issues that have come up there.
Rudnick said the Colonial Building dorm would be occupied for eight months.
There are still some challenges ahead for the proposal. In a letter to the zoning board, Fire Chief Peter Connick said the said the sprinkler heads in the building may be more than 50 years old and need to be replaced. Also, because of the potential life hazard associated with a dorm, a fire hydrant will have to be installed at the rear of the building. The department will be reviewing the plans with a third party consultant, he added.
Changes to the rear facade of the lower level, which amount to new windows and a single entrance, have already been approved by the historic business district commission, Riley said. The proposal is slated to go before the planning board on May 23.
Other than some concern about losing parking to construction vehicles during the summer months – Rudnick agreed to have workers park at the warehouse near the Village Market and shuttled to the site – members of the zoning board had no concerns about the proposal.
“It's where the workforce is needed, and it's right there,” said Joe Craig. “You're not even going to know it's there.”