FITCHBURG — While the Art Museum moves forward with plans to renovate a trio of historic buildings, city officials are looking toward the recently approved Smart Growth zoning district to provide a much needed spark to the downtown area.
Tuesday night, the City Council voted unanimously to extend the city’s 40R Smart Growth zoning overlay district on the River Street corridor to include downtown.
“Smart zoning is what’s going to get us the flexibility we need for development,” said City Councilor Anthony Zarrella. “I want to commend the Community Development Department and I look forward to continuing.”
“I think this Smart Growth district in the downtown is the right move,” said City Councilor Samantha Squailia. “The goal is to increase housing downtown right near our train station, so I absolutely approve of this and I can’t wait to see what it looks like 10 years in the future.”
Executive Director of Community Development Tom Skwierawski said the overlay district is the perfect tool to promote development downtown.
“To developers, it offers streamlined housing production,” said Skwierawski. “Currently, if a developer would like to produce housing downtown, they’d have to do it through special permit which is a fairly onerous process.”
The district also reduces the parking requirement from 2 spaces per unit to 1.5 spaces. Skwierawski said this makes it easier for developers to produce housing downtown, where space for parking is limited.
According to Skwierawski, Smart Growth will help the city produce new revenue through two different methods.
First, there is a state incentive grant program which makes Fitchburg eligible for up to $600,000 if they approve the district. The payment will be attached to housing development, so there will be an initial $75,000 payment tied to the Fitchburg Arts Community project, and subsequent housing can draw payments up to that max.
A $3,000 payment per unit produced in the district will also be available to the city, said Skwierawski.
Skwierawski said the project will benefit the city’s affordable housing requirement, which requires 10% of the housing stock deemed restricted-affordable.
Currently, Fitchburg does not meet the requirement because just under 9% of its housing is affordable.
“If a developer did want to produce a development that had at least 25% affordable housing then they could circumvent local zoning,” said Skwierawski.
“They could go to the state level and apply for a 40B permit and basically leapfrog the ordinance we currently have on the books.”
The zoning will first be used by the Fitchburg Art Community project.
“Currently, that project is not permitted through our existing zoning,” said Skwierawski. “This opens that up to development.”
Now with approval of the district, developers can move forward with the permitting and review process for the project.
Developers of the project will take the existing B.F. Brown School Building, the former Fitchburg city stables and the Annex Building — the former Fitchburg Academy — and renovate them into apartments and work areas for artists of all types.
According to Fitchburg Art Museum Director Nick Capasso, the community will be available to those who work in creative industries as defined by the state. That list includes artists, musicians, dancers game developers, filmmakers, and more.
There will be approximately 60 units for creators. Capasso has said most of the units will be affordable and a handful will be market rate.
On Tuesday, organizers of the project came before the City Council to advocate for the zoning district’s approval.
“We had a bunch of different choices and we thought this was the best one both because it had the biggest impact on downtown and it generates additional revenue that the city can use,” said Executive Director of NewVue Communities Marc Dohan.
Dohan said the project will significantly help the downtown prosper economically.
In a statement, Capasso said the Smart Growth district is vital for the Fitchburg arts community.
“Together we have all invested considerable amounts of time and staff capacity and money to restore three historic buildings, stabilize a neighborhood, increase the tax rolls, and bring new life to downtown,” he said.
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