After 75 years, French Block lights are back on
MONTPELIER — The windows of the dormant historic 1875 French Block on Main Street in the Capital City have been vacant for more than 75 years. Legend has it the building owner became upset at tenants who misbehaved, so he shuttered the upper floors of the three-story classic Federal-style building. In 1992, during the city’s biennial celebration, the late Margo George of the Montpelier Historical Society tried to breathe some life into the vacant windows of the building with props that included lace curtains and silhouettes of human figures. It was also an effort to spur a real-life return of residents to the building that failed because of concerns about the prohibitive cost of rehabilitation and new code requirements for commercial developers. Then, beginning in January, signs of life finally returned as lights and human figures could be seen again in those once-vacant windows. The event — a weekslong asbestos and lead-paint abatement and demolition of the much of the interior structure — heralded a new lease on life for the building, and the promised return of residents in the new year. Work has already begun to refit the interior to create 18 studio and one-bedroom apartments — four market-rate rental units, nine affordable units based on income sensitivity, and five units for homeless people. An official groundbreaking with guest speaker Sen. Patrick Leahy will be held across the street at City Hall May 1. The renaissance is due in good part to the mission and goals of Downstreet Housing and Community Development in Barre, led by executive director Eileen Peltier and a dedicated team of housing and urban planners. Its partners — the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, Housing Vermont, the Preservation Trust of Vermont and the Vermont Community Development Program — and a blend of major federal housing funds and low-income housing and national historic preservation tax credits has helped to fortify the undertaking of new housing construction. Downstreet’s partnership with Montpelier includes a plan to build a mix of 30 affordable and market-rate apartments above the new Taylor Street Transit Center. Due to begin in the summer, the $7.6 million housing project is expected to take a year to complete. In return, the city of Montpelier has become a strong partner with Downstreet, injecting $135,000 from its Housing Trust Fund into the $6.1 million French Block project. For the city, with a goal to create 150 housing units over the next five years, the partnership with Downstreet and its connections to both state and federal funding programs has been a mutual win-win. It has helped spur new downtown housing development that is in high demand by both millennials and seniors looking to transition out of larger family homes, both looking to live in a downtown center close to services. Peltier is enthusiastic about the start of work on the French Block project. “All the funding is in place and we’re on budget … so from a funding perspective the project is looking really good,” Peltier said. Peltier noted that working with a “crazy, old building” like the French Block presented the challenge of old architecture that involved additional costs to make it meet code requirements, such as the installation of an elevator to be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Other structural anomalies also made it less attractive to commercial developers. During a site visit this week, Jay Ansel, principal architect at Black River Design in Montpelier, said his project architect, Lynn Cetrano, has had to work closely with David Stanley, superintendent of New Hampshire construction firm Trumbull-Nelson, to finesse many of the design details in the French Block renovation. Ansel pointed out existing design details, such original wainscoting, floor-to-ceiling light shafts, frontage wood-frame windows and faux wood-grain finish interior doors that would remain intact to satisfy conditions of a $1 million federal preservation tax credit for the project. Other design improvements include sprinklers to meet fire code requirements, state-of-the-art LED lighting, and an air source heat pump system that should dramatically reduce energy costs. Ancel said there were some curious finds in the old building including a room “wallpapered in newspapers dating back to the days of George Dewey,” a reference to Admiral George Dewey, the Montpelier-born admiral who led the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet to victory in the Spanish-American War in the Philippines. Contractor David Stanley said there were also finds of old glass bottles, and a safe that was buried in a wall. It was open and empty. Project officials also credit Aubuchon Hardware management for accommodating the construction crew while still trying to do business below at street level. A staging area in an adjoining former florist shop will become an extension of the hardware store after the project is complete. Alison Friedkin, director of real estate development for Downstreet, said the nonprofit would begin to accept applications for prospective tenants in August, and would base affordable apartment approvals on income eligibility, tenant rental history and a questionnaire.