MONTPELIER — The past came back to life with a celebration to reopen the historic 1875 French Block on Main Street in the Capital City on Thursday.
It was standing room only at a ceremony at City Hall marking the yearlong refit of the Federal-style building across the street, which has been converted into 18 affordable homes for low-income people and the homeless.
The reopening of the French Block was a red-letter day for advocates of affordable housing, downtown revitalization and reducing the city’s carbon footprint. After a round of acknowledgements of the many local, state and federal partners and a history lesson of how the building was abandoned, participants gathered for a ribbon-cutting photo, followed by tours of the new apartments and refreshments provided by local restaurants.
Leading the charge on the project was Downstreet Housing and Community Development in Barre, which has created more than 100 units of affordable housing in Montpelier.
Downstreet Executive Director Eileen Peltier noted that Vermont is “one of the least affordable states in the country to live,” with the fifth-largest affordability gap in 2018, marked by a $10 difference between the average hourly wage and what is needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Vermont.
“For the residents of Montpelier, it has been nearly 80 years since the upstairs of the historic French Block offered any semblance of life in the heart of Vermont’s capital,” Peltier said. “Today at the dawn of a new year, we celebrate a great community collaboration that is a pure demonstration of what can be achieved through the power of community. Today, I’m happy to say, the lights are on, and welcome home.”
Mayor Anne Watson added: “The more people living in Montpelier, to me, means less carbon emitted from commuting, it means more workers available for our local businesses, and most importantly, it’s about the people who are going to live there. It’s stable and affordable housing that is going to provide a foundation for people to pursue the life they want to live, whether that’s starting a family or getting a job they want or pursuing an education or even just belonging to a community.”
There were also tributes from Vermont’s Congressional delegation, including a video from Sen. Patrick Leahy, who said he remembers delivering newspapers to former residents of the apartment block before it closed.
According to State Historic Preservation Officer Laura Trieschmann, who researched the building, the lights went out 80 years ago in 1938 when the former Boston owner of the apartment building decided it was too expensive to maintain and evicted the residents. She said he even proposed removing the upper two residential floors and leaving just the retail ground floor before the City Council stepped in to avoid diminishing the city’s longest block and damaging the integrity of the streetscape.
Efforts marking the long way home for the return of residents began in the early days of the Montpelier Housing Task Force, which sought to create more housing in the city, which still has a near-zero vacancy rate. Others involved included the late Margot George, a founder of the Montpelier Heritage Group in 1975, which did some window dressing with lace curtains and human silhouettes in the windows and lobbied for the building’s rehabilitation.
Jay Ansel, of Black River Design in Montpelier, noted that he worked unsuccessfully with five different clients over the last 35 years to rehabilitate the building before Downstreet Housing stepped in to begin the project, which took New Hampshire construction firm Trumbell-Nelson a year to complete.
Working with fellow project architect Lynn Cetrano, design improvements included sprinklers to meet fire code requirements, state-of-the-art LED lighting, and an air-source heat pump system that will dramatically reduce energy costs. Units include 16 one-bedroom and two efficiency apartments. Rents will range from $715 to $875.
Also part of the project was maintaining existing design details, such original wainscoting, floor-to-roof light shafts, frontage wood-frame windows and faux wood-grain finish interior doors to satisfy conditions of a $1 million federal preservation tax credit for the project.
Elly Marshall was one of the lucky tenants to secure an apartment in the French Block. She spoke of the importance of safe and secure housing that would allow her to branch out and connect with the community.
“‘The minimum requirement for a dream is a safe place to lay one’s head,’” she said, quoting from a housing association brochure. “My dream is always to find, in housing, both safety and support, but most of all, stability. And to find stability, I’m looking for the ability to strengthen relationships.”
Major partners in the project included TD Bank (the largest funder of affordable housing projects in Vermont), Northfield Savings Bank, Housing Vermont, Vermont Housing Finance Agency, Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, Vermont Community Development Program, Montpelier Housing Trust Fund, NeighborWorks and Efficiency Vermont.