ORLEANS — The affordable housing committee wants Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank to know the town remains interested in reusing the bank's soon-to-be former headquarters off West Road for housing.
“It's important that they realize our enthusiasm is still there,” Selectman Mefford Runyon, his board's liaison to the committee, said at the committee's Nov. 7 meeting.
The bank, whose new operations center is under construction on Route 132 in Barnstable, signaled earlier this year that it would be willing to work with the town regarding the future of the Orleans property. The town commissioned a survey of the bank building that found it could be renovated to house 29 apartments.
“It seems to me the town of Orleans has some homework to do before we have any idea of what we might agree to buy the property for,” committee member Fran McClennen said. “We should be doing some predevelopment exploring. The Massachusetts Housing Partnership has said it would be able to do some of that predevelopment for us or with us and coach us.”
With McClennen, member Gilbert Merritt has been attending what he called an “interminable” but useful series of sessions of the Cape Housing Institute, created by Housing Assistance Corporation and the Eastham-based Community Development Partnership to educate town officials and other citizens on the latest strategies to advance affordable housing. He said Laura Shufelt, a Cape Codder who serves as assistant director of community development for MHP, told the Institute class her group has “funds and capabilities for determining the viability of properties.”
Vice chairman Tom Johnson offered to get in touch with Shufelt about next steps. Runyon agreed to tell his board about the MHP contact, which he said would be “theoretically without any expense to the town.”
“Yes, or obligation,” said Planning and Community Development Director George Meservey.
Last week's discussion began with Meservey sharing a request from the selectmen to meet with the committee about the Cape Cod Five building, but some members were reluctant.
“I don't know why we have to go to the selectmen at this point,” McClennen said. “Why don't we do our homework so we know what to go with to the selectmen?”
The committee has several homework assignments, including a perpetual one to look for possible building sites. At last week's meeting, the recent listing of what many in town still call the Underground Mall, just west of Route 6 off Route 6A, drew interest.
“We've loved this for awhile,” Johnson said of the 3.64-acre property on 7 Nell Way listed for $2.29 million with Kalstar Realty. Built in 1980, the mall, later known as Bayberry Square, is assessed for $2,206,000 and zoned General Business. It's owned by the 530 Tremont Realty Trust, which bought the property from RVI Properties Corporation for $2.5 million in 2003; RVI bought it from Bayberry LLC for $2.3 million back in 1997.
Two of the mall's anchors, a Chinese restaurant and the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School, are gone. Several small businesses still occupy spaces there.
Runyon said converting the property “has so many benefits, including getting rid of one of the biggest eyesores in town.” The mall has a very large parking lot; in fact, the real estate listing includes this incentive: “100 percent impervious.”
Committee member Barry Alper wondered what it would take to have the town extend the wastewater system to the site to support affordable housing. The Phase 1 downtown sewering plan, headed for a vote at the May 2019 town meeting, does not go west of Route 6.
“At this point, the engineering process is so far down the road,” Runyon said, “(that) changes are extremely difficult. I'm thinking that another phase would be maybe the way to do it. I can't imagine that happening quickly.” That means, for the near future, any housing at the mall site would be on a septic system.
Johnson put out a call for citizens to serve on the town's new affordable housing trust, which will work with the board of selectmen to mount a rapid response when opportunities for affordable housing arise. Previously, property acquisitions had to wait until the next town meeting; now that body has authorized the board and trust to act on its behalf when appropriate. It has also set aside hundreds of thousands of dollars to accomplish the work.