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Planners Hear Middle School East Housing Proposal

The Planning Board wants to use developer Kevin Lobisser's idea to convert the former Middle School East building into 36 market-rate, one- and two-bedroom apartments for people ages 55 and over as a reason for revisiting the idea of creating zoning to allow converting vacant higher floors of downtown Main St. commercial buildings into residential use.

Lobisser – who would need a zoning change to allow a residential use at the former school's 45 Main St. site – discussed his proposed re-use with the Planning Board on February 20. His proposal to buy the building for $115,000 – accepted by the Board of Selectmen on February 12 –presented the town with two options: The first is tearing the school building down and building a new commercial building with off-street parking on the site, as allowed by current zoning. The second option, which requires a zoning change, is to tear down the newer wing of the school along Sumner Street, convert the main school building into apartments, build a smaller wing on the Sumner Street side with apartments, and have 54 off-street parking spaces in the rear of the property.

Creating the 55-plus apartments is his preference, Lobisser told the Planning Board. "It could not be a better location" for such type of housing, he said.

Board Chairman Patrick Kennelly said that, conceptually, Lobisser's idea was a good one, but turning it into reality depended on how much time the developer was willing to invest in the rezoning effort. "I think it makes sense," he said. "I'm fine with what you're proposing."

The Planning Board would want to look at Lobisser's proposal as fitting in to a broader goal of having a mixed residential/commercial zone stretching from Sacred Heart of Jesus Church to the Post Office, the chairman said. Two past attempts to allow apartments in the commercially zoned downtown area were shot down, Kennelly said."We've been unsuccessful," he said. With Lobisser's proposal part of another attempt, perhaps "the selectmen will endorse it and this time it will be successful," Kennelly said.

Board member Joseph Calagione said planners needed to look at questions of housing density along with having a commercial use on the ground floor with apartments on upper floors. "This building was never a retail building," Lobisser responded. "I would have proposed that [retail use on the first floor] if I thought it would work in this building."

Lobisser suggested any zoning change should take into account what the prior use of a downtown building was. He offered to have his attorney draft a proposed Zoning By-law amendment for the Planning Board to review. When Lobisser asked for a proposed timeframe the board might need to review it, Calagione said it was too soon to look at such zoning this year. He projected the May, 2019 Annual Town Meeting for a zoning change to be voted upon. "I think, realistically, it's a year," Kennelly added. Lobisser's proposal may help the Planning Board get apartments into other downtown buildings, Calagione said. "We believe it's needed and would help the town," he said. The board should make it clear that re-zoning should not just involve the Middle School East building, but all of downtown, Calagione stressed.

"I want to commit myself to doing this," Lobisser said about the residential option. If the zoning change were approved, the construction would take about eight months to finish, he added. "This is the one [option] where my heart is at," he stated.

Editor's Note: See Board of Selectmen story on page 16 for an update on proposed zoning change.


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