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Plan would convert defunct White River Junction hotel to affordable apartments

Twin Pines Housing Trust serves the Upper Valley. Photo via Twin Pines Housing Trust Facebook

This story by Patrick Adrian first appeared in the Valley News on Nov. 17.

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — New zoning changes in Hartford are facilitating a proposal to convert a defunct hotel off Route 5 into affordable housing for people with middle to low incomes.

Twin Pines Housing Trust, an affordable housing nonprofit based in White River Junction, is looking to turn a 67-room hotel at 102 Ballardvale Drive into a multifamily apartment building containing 40 units — 31 one-bedroom apartments and nine studio apartments.

The hotel, a former Fairfield Inn and Suites, is located in a cul-de-sac occupied primarily by several commercial lodgings, including Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express and Suites, and White River Inn and Suites.

Andrew Winter, executive director of Twin Pines, said hotel owners Butson Hotels, of Essex Junction, approached Twin Pines about the project. Last year, a Vermont housing group announced plans to convert a Towneplace Suites Marriott in Williston containing 99 suites into 72 affordable housing units.

“Projects like this allow us to bring new housing to the market more quickly and at a lower cost than if we were to start from scratch,” Winter said.

The one-bedroom units would be created by combining two adjacent hotel rooms, according to the application. One of the two bathrooms would be converted into a kitchenette.

Twin Pines also plans to renovate the ground floor to add offices for staff and meeting spaces, which could be used for tenant meetings or by community groups.

Winter said the housing units will be for individuals or families whose incomes are 60% or less of the area median.

In Windsor County the median household income is $60,987, according to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

Twin Pines is also partnering with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, which is located near the hotel, to provide housing units to veterans as well as VA employees.

The VA hospital reports an average of 300 employee applicants per year who struggle to find housing in the area, according to Winter.

In addition, four of the units will be subsidized through housing vouchers through the VA Supportive Housing program, a federally funded program that provides housing assistance to veterans experiencing homelessness.

“We are really excited about that partnership with the VA,” Winter said. “It has been a real struggle sometimes for veterans to find housing close to the VA where they receive services.”

To make this Twin Pines project possible, the Hartford Selectboard in October unanimously approved a zoning amendment to allow mixed-use residential and commercial development in the 32-acre stretch of land containing the hotel, which previously prohibited residential projects.

On Wednesday, the Hartford Zoning Board unanimously approved Twin Pines’ project application, which was the first to be approved under the new zoning changes.

Over the past 18 months, Hartford officials have amended zoning in three commercial districts to allow residential development — two located in White River Junction and one in Quechee — to maximize opportunities to increase housing projects in high-density areas containing vacant or underutilized spaces.

These types of initiatives “allow us to up the limit in terms of what we can do,” Lori Hirshfield, Hartford director of planning and development, said last month at an Upper Valley housing summit.

The Hartford Planning Commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing for the Twin Pines project on Nov. 28 at 6 p.m. in Hartford Town Hall.

Twin Pines also plans to ask the Planning Commission to waive a zoning ordinance requirement to provide a minimum of 85 parking spaces, which is based on the project’s number of housing units.

The hotel property has a parking lot that currently holds 65 spaces. Twin Pines plans to remove three of these spaces to add a dumpster, leaving a total of 62 spaces.

Winter said he does not foresee a problem getting approval of the parking modification, as town officials have approved similar requests by Twin Pines in the past, including the Wentworth Community Housing complex in White River Junction.

Because of the unit sizes and the projected tenant incomes, residents are not expected to have more than one car per housing unit, which is supported by data from the Wentworth project, Winter said.

The proposed project is also located on the public bus route and close to where Hartford plans to install sidewalks on Route 5 in two phases.

One phase would install a sidewalk connecting Ballardvale Drive to the Upper Valley Aquatic Center at Arboretum Lane. That project is scheduled for construction to begin in 2024 or 2025, Winter said. The second phase, which does not have a known timeline, would connect Ballardvale Drive to Sykes Mountain Avenue at the traffic circle.

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