ORLEANS — An online survey that drew more than 700 responses ranked affordable housing and a community center as the top desired uses for the 5.5-acre Governor Prence Inn property between Route 6A and the Cape Cod Rail Trail.
The survey was part of a feasibility study, supported by town meeting in October and the affordable housing trust, to help determine whether the town could benefit from buying the property. There’s a signed purchase and sales agreement for $2.8 million, contingent on town meeting approval in May, and a deadline of March 15 for deciding whether to ask voters for funding.
With the study due to be completed by the end of the month, Judi Barrett of the Barrett Consulting Group gave an interim report to the select board, affordable housing committee, and affordable housing trust Jan. 12.
“We looked at your housing plan in an attempt to understand the community needs that might be met at this site,” she said, noting “a number of people living in units that are low- to moderate-income folks for whom rents are not necessarily affordable, not priced for their needs. According to the housing plan, among renters there’s currently a deficit of about 274 units.”
There’s a “similar kind of deficit for homeowners,” said Barrett. “There’s a pretty significant homeownership need in the community as well. The upshot is that there are affordable housing needs to be met, and it looks as though this site may be able to participate in helping to address those needs.”
At the same time, “there seems to be a lot of interest in a community center,” she said. The survey found much less support for uses such as a fire station, library, commercial space, or health care. “We don’t do surveys like this to get hard statistical data,” Barrett cautioned, noting that her company had researched available data and conducted interviews as well.
Armed with all that, landscape architect Bart Lipinski of Grady Consulting walked the property last week and came up with three concepts for the site, two of which were presented at the meeting (all can be viewed at www.town.orleans.ma.us/select-board/pages/governor-prence-feasibility/).
A mixed-use concept includes an office building with 12 to 15 apartments on the second floor, located close to Route 6A. “In the back half of the site, we tried to put (about 30) smaller cottage-type (homes) there,” Lipinski said. “(They) connect to the bike path, a great opportunity to walk right up to the town center or ride your bike without having to go on 6A.”
Another concept was strictly residential with 49 cottage-style homes save for an “amenity building” for neighborhood gatherings. The third idea was for a library or community center with playgrounds and reading gardens; Lipinski said he was “trying to figure how to get some residential components into that as well.”
“The town is filled with vacant commercial space,” select board member Mefford Runyon said. “There’s a redevelopment project, a fairly large one, expected to happen once the sewer is completed. The demand and need for commercial space, I personally don’t see.” He preferred the idea of a building “that could be a lot of things, including a community center. The way space can be transformed from one thing to another, you could have an event venue, recreation… A lot of people’s desires can be built with one building.”
George Meservey, the town’s director of planning and community development, noted that there has yet to be a study “of what a community center for Orleans would look like – as big as the one downtown now or as big as Harwich’s.” He suggested exploring whether housing could be built on the site first while reserving some land for another use. “There’s enough land there,” Barrett said. “It’s just a question of how big that community center would be.” (The Orleans Citizens Forum will host a discussion on a community center for the town Jan. 25 at 5:30 p.m.)
Noting that two of the concepts provided about 45 housing units each, housing trust board chair Alan McClennen said that they consumed “a lot of land” on a site with competing interests. He suggested putting the same-sized units into a single building to “create some efficiencies,” leaving land for other uses.
Select board member Mark Mathison warned against “putting the cart before the horse… If we don’t have the housing we need, the community center will be another mostly vacant building… We have to have housing that young people and working people can afford to live in so they can be year-round drivers of our economy.”
Barrett expects to present a draft of her final report at a public meeting in early February.