By Julia Purdy
RUTLAND—Sixty years ago Rutland’s downtown bustled with activity. Its tall, late 19th century office blocks hummed with offices, and businessmen, shoppers and salesmen thronged its sidewalks. Rutland’s downtown furnished daily needs from housewares to hardware, shoes to dry goods, cameras to clothing, groceries to jewelry. Warehouses, hotels and a big rail passenger station anchored the downtown core, while courthouses and churches crowned the hill. It was a lively place, yet small enough for business owners and their employees to walk to work from the surrounding neighborhoods.
Now, there are growing signs that Rutland is poised to reinvent itself, and a key element in that revitalization is the quiet development of housing in the downtown core, which includes includes lower Center Street and Washington Street, Wales Street, Merchants Row, and all of Strongs Avenue.
Permitted uses in the Downtown Business District include categories that support a strong residential component, from schools and churches to workplaces, shopping and entertainment.
“This ordinance acknowledges what’s been there and what is allowed. … It’s really already naturally lending itself to the additional density in the downtown,” city Zoning Administrator Tara Kelly told the Mountain Times. “If you look at the trends in planning, there is a whole new urbanist idea that there should be mixed development with retail on the bottom and offices or residences above – we already have that and have had that for a number of years.”
No one the Mountain Times spoke to has a clear idea of how much upper-level floor space throughout downtown is currently available for conversion to housing, but what is clear is that the demand is there.
“It’s difficult to know what potential there is,” said Brennan Duffy, executive director of the Rutland Redevelopment Authority. “Most of these units have gotten rented before they’re completed. That implies a strong market.”
Four years ago, Charles and Eileen Coughlin acquired the big red building at the corner of Wales and Center streets and moved their office from Woodstock Avenue to the new digs. For years the building had housed BROC offices (Bennington-Rutland County Opportunity Council), a nonprofit social service agency.
While the Coughlins’ main need was for commercial space, “We just thought there was a good opportunity for some housing,” Charles Coughlin said. The off-street parking “caught my eye, without a doubt.”
Naming the building “60 Center St.,” they rent street-level space to the Vermont Center for Independent Living and the Blush Salon, and converted the second floor to two residential apartments. The building was in “good shape” and didn’t require much change aside from “paper and paint” and new bathrooms and kitchens in the rental apartments, he said.
The Coughlins live in Rutland town; Charles Coughlin’s businesses include both local MacDonald’s restaurants and Central Vermont Motorcycle. They had no problem renting the apartments and are “happy with the decision,” he said.
“There is big demand” for high quality rentals among young professionals or retirees who want to be able to “lock, leave and travel,” said Jessica Anderson, a UBS financial advisor who works downtown. She and her husband,
Harold, a retired engineer formerly at Carris Reels, moved to Vermont 50 years ago. With children “grown and gone,” they decided to downsize.
After a somewhat nomadic existence as renters, they went on a quest for permanent housing. They bought the two-story former Rutland Fire Clay building at 36-38 Merchants Row and moved in, converting five upstairs offices into living space to create a four bedroom, 2,800 square foot home above professional offices.
“The city of Rutland could not have been more helpful” for permitting, code compliance, and implementation. “The climate [for development] is completely different,” she said.
Anderson said she walks everywhere downtown and feels “very safe.” She concedes that “It would be nice if there were more pre-paid parking areas.”
One drawback to residential development downtown is lack of floor space. “There’s plenty of demand, but spaces are too limited,” she said. “These people are all moving out of large houses and they’re downsizing, and they want to have kids and grandkids to come visit. They have to look at pretty nice spaces.”
The long-range goals of the developer are important too. “It has to be someone who has some vision and understanding who they are catering to. You can’t come in and develop cheap spaces for a struggling population,” Anderson said.
Elizabeth Kulas, executive director of the Center Street-based Housing Trust of Rutland County, made the point that downtown residential development should spur the local economy.
“For upper floors to be redeveloped as housing, there are two ways that contribute positively to economic viability,” she told the Mountain Times. “First, renovating vacant or underutilized space, investing in the building condition. Second, if the people who are living there have resources for shopping and entertainment, the real benefit of upper level downtown housing to the community is getting that economic cycle flowing, fueling business development downtown.”
Anderson envisions more businesses downtown such as a pharmacy, more restaurants, and a corner market. Assessor Barry Keefe also observed that the urban lifestyle supports the local economy: fewer people cook at home, so downtown restaurants are thriving.
Mark Foley Jr., a major downtown property owner, commented, “It’s not just the housing, it’s what is around the housing.” He believes that housing “lays the groundwork” for new uses of downtown in the future.
The Housing Trust of Rutland County developed the dilapidated Tuttle Block on Center Street into a safe, secure, 13-unit residential building for income-qualified tenants. But the cost of development was high.
“The biggest challenge is economy of scale and the cost of renovating the spaces,” said Kulas. Although the Tuttle Block was successful, “The demand doesn’t seem to be for downtown housing of the type that we develop. As the market changes, the appetite for doing something that may otherwise be risky increases. Upper floor housing should be used for people with means.” The Trust intends to “stay out of it and give the private sector space to run,” she said.
Foley told the Mountain Times he made a decision to look at upper floor downtown housing in 2016. Foley’s first residential project was to convert 28,000 square feet in his Clement and Gryphon buildings to student housing for Castleton University.
“The downtown core is a good indicator of overall community health,” Foley said. “Downtown is always in a state of transition.”
Build it and they will come? “That is the challenge,” he said. “It depends on individual developers biting off what they can chew, you will see it in steps and stage … Rutland is not a big city to begin with, so when someone develops apartments that’s significant. It’s a reflection of some health in the market. We’re starting to see returns on the investment that’s been done over the last five to 10 years. It’s scaled to the appropriate size for what Rutland is. Sustainable growth – responsible growth – is what we will continue to see, the highest quality development that we can have, from the long-term perspective. I’d rather have that than boom and bust.”
Photo by Julia Purdy