Affordable Apartments Possible At Bank Ops Center, But Many Questions Remain

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Housing and homelessness

The Cape Cod 5 Operations Center in Orleans. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

ORLEANS Consultants have answered a key question by opining that the current Cape Cod Five Operations Center on West Road can probably be re-purposed as affordable apartments. But in answering that question, they’ve opened up countless others.

CBI Consulting, LLC, of Boston and Bennett Environmental Associates, Inc., of Brewster submitted their findings to town officials late last month, Town Administrator John Kelly told selectmen last week. The report is “a very preliminary assessment, which at the end of the day, said, yes, the building was feasible to convert. But they qualify that in a number of areas,” he said.

Architect Andrea Willett of CBI Consulting opined that the 20-year-old, two-story office building could accommodate 17 one-bedroom apartments in the current building envelope on the 3.6-acre site next to Skaket Corners. The bank will vacate the building upon completion of its new operations center in Barnstable, expected to be in late 2019, and bank officials have signaled a willingness to consider a purchase proposal from the town.

Kelly said if the town pursued creating affordable apartments on the site, it would be unlike any previous affordable housing project the town has undertaken. While the town has experience building home-ownership units on undeveloped land, it has never redeveloped an existing property for rental housing.

To that end, the town has retained a housing consultant to develop a “pro forma” evaluation of the financial feasibility of having a third-party developer convert the building to an apartment complex and then operate and manage that complex as affordable housing. Once that evaluation is complete, the town could issue a request for proposals from housing firms, requiring them to provide financial assurances that the project will be completed.

In 2006, the town of Chatham hired one such company, The Community Builders, Inc., to build and operate the 47-unit Lake Street Terrace apartments. That firm continues to manage the property today.

Kelly said if the town is going to ask voters to authorize the purchase of the operations center property, “we need to know whether there’s a viable project here.”

Provided that the town could negotiate an agreeable purchase price, and provided that town meeting authorized the purchase, town officials would review proposals from housing firms and select the best one. The town would then arrange to convey the property to the company, which would pledge to rent units at an affordable rate in perpetuity.

Kelly suggested that the town open conversations with the Housing Assistance Corporation of Hyannis or the Lower Cape Community Development Corporation to discuss potential ways forward.

Should the project move ahead, the town could seek funds through the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, but there is a three-year waiting list for applications, Kelly said.

Selectmen Chairman Alan McClennen, Jr., said the board should schedule a meeting with the town’s affordable housing committee. “We should make sure that we take advantage of our committee which is focused on this issue before we charge off and hire somebody ourselves,” he said. That meeting should happen in executive session, McClennen added.

“All of this ends up in a very sensitive negotiation with the current owner of that property,” he said.

The CBI review proposed a certain number of one-bedroom apartments, but that might not be the best approach, Selectman Mark Mathison said.

“I’m not sure that’s what we’re looking for,” he said. If the town is seeking to attract young families, two- or three-bedroom apartments might be better, Mathison said. “That’s what we have an affordable housing committee for.”

Questions remain about the financial feasibility of such a project, Kelly said.

“Rehabilitation is not always the least expensive option,” he said, and new construction is often easier. The operations center property is seen as an attractive option because of its closeness to retailers and public transportation.

While the preliminary assessment indicates that the operations center is likely in good shape structurally, “let’s not just look at that building,” Selectman Kevin Galligan said. The building sits on around 3.75 acres of land, he noted, and it’s a “great location” for housing. It might be possible to build a larger, new building with a renewable energy component “such that we can minimize the operating cost,” he said. “I think it’s got great potential.”

Board member David Currier warned that the project won’t be inexpensive. Citing the maximum number of units that can be permitted without Cape Cod Commission review, “it’s going to be real expensive to get 30 bedrooms out of that property,” Currier said. “Real expensive.”

Selectman Mefford Runyon said one benefit of the site is that it lies along the route of the proposed sewer expansion.

“That really changes a lot of what that property is capable of doing,” he said. Runyon, a retired Cape Cod Five executive, said he’s optimistic that a deal might be possible. The seller, he said, is “as interested in creating affordable housing as we are.”

Kelly said that Planning and Community Development Director George Meservey would be reaching out to housing groups for more information. He said he would also schedule a future meeting between selectmen and the affordable housing committee to consider the proposal.