Housing Board contemplates O’Brien property

Thu, 09/23/2021 - 2:30pm

The Block Island Housing Board is moving into the conceptual phase of planning and general development for its most recently acquired property. The O’Brien property is located on West Side Road, next to the E. Searles Ball Housing development and across the street from Ball O’Brien Park.
The town recently agreed to change the zoning for the property to New Harbor Commercial, in order to accommodate a higher density.
“We should explore the most we can do, and then scale down from there. If we don’t take the full scale of it, we might not ever get this density again,” Vice Chair Rosemary Tobin told the group as they discussed the number of proposed units.
Member John Spier said that the nearby West Side 20 development has 60 bedrooms. “It’s a little more than double the land size (of the O’Brien property), so that puts us in the 30 bedroom range. Eighteen to 25 bedrooms seems about right.” Dividing the bedrooms up into actual housing units still leaves some options to consider. Spier went on to say that “24 bedrooms can be eight units or it can be fifteen units. Smaller units fit a demographic that we haven’t addressed yet.”
Chair Cindy Pappas pointed out the need to keep the town in mind. “What will the town embrace and what will fit nicely on the land? It might be 10, it might be 12, it might be 20. Twenty might be too many.”
Pappas also pointed out to the group that a large project might be too costly. “We’re probably still short, but I’d like to see an estimate of how short.”
Spier agreed that there was “a big gap between what we’ve got and what we want to build. If we have somebody do a really nice concept, without design development, without investing a lot of money in design detail, but with a design concept to develop this much housing; then we do some fundraising, look for some high net worth donors. So then you have a higher budget.” Spier also mentioned that he knew people who would be “approachable.”
Member Stacy Henshaw said, “this is an idea we should explore. There are people out there who believe in the cause.”
“Part of the sell is they need the services. If they own a house here they want to be able to have a plumber, an EMT, a firefighter, a teacher,” Spier said, referring to the island’s workforce that generally struggles to find affordable housing.
Tobin also mentioned the slice of the population that prefers to rent. “There are people that don’t want to buy, they just want to rent. We can’t just ignore it. There has to be some sort of rental affordable housing project. We have to address it.”
Pappas answered, “The model that we’ve used thus far is we save our money, we get the infrastructure going, we build a project that we know we can sell. That money will pay back the note we took out to build the project. It’s worked very well. Once we get into rentals that throws the kibosh on that model. It’s not the only model we can use. But rentals change the model, it changes our finances, it changes
the way we’ve done business. We can change, but there’s a domino effect.”
The projects built by the Housing Board thus far have been owner-occupied units for sale, not for rent. Tobin was adamant about including some rental units in the O’Brien project, suggesting that the town or the school might buy some of the units to rent to their employees.
“We don’t want to be a property management board,” Spier reminded everyone.
Pappas had stated early on that she didn’t think rental units would make back the money invested to build them, and would leave the board with a large debt service responsibility.
“It hampers the future,” Pappas said.
“We shouldn’t short ourselves without trying,” Tobin said.
The board is working on securing an architect, possibly pro bono, to help create a conceptual design for the project.