BERLIN – The demolition of a historic Jefferson Street home is expected to bring a new mixed use building to downtown Berlin.
On Wednesday, the Berlin Historic District Commission approved plans presented by Habitat for Humanity of Worcester County to tear down the existing home at 21 Jefferson St. Andrea Bowland, director of the non-profit, said the organization planned to erect a building featuring retail and apartments on the site in the future.
Members of the historic district commission, though generally cautious about demolitions, praised the project.
“I feel really good about what you’re proposing,” said Carol Rose, chair of the commission. “This whole thing is a win for the town. I’m very happy about it.”
According to Bowland, Habitat for Humanity wanted to purchase the house at 21 Jefferson St. and turn it into a mixed use project similar to those on Main Street, with retail on the ground floor and apartments above. The house, however, dates back to the early 20th century and is in poor condition.
“The existing foundation does not support what we wish to build,” Bowland said.
Consequently, the organization intends to tear down the home and erect a new building. The retail space would be rented out by Habitat for Humanity while the upper floor apartments would be sold.
Lauren Bunting, a member of Habitat for Humanity’s board of directors, said the project would be ideal because it would provide housing and at the same time create a revenue stream for the non-profit.
“The exciting part for Habitat is that we’ll condominiumize and be able to keep the structures on the bottom floor to rent,” she said.
Bowland said the project would further the organization’s goal of providing affordable housing but would also be generate retail space in Berlin’s Arts and Entertainment District.
“We’re all about enabling families with housing but this is one step beyond that,” Bowland said. “It gives artists a leg up.”
Rose said she’d been born and raised in Berlin and recognized the fact that the existing home at the site had been around a long time. She said that in researching it however she hadn’t been able to identify any particular historical significance associated with it.
“I don’t like to see properties torn down but when you look at the code and what we’re told to consider, we are supposed to consider the historic or architectural value or significance of a structure,” Rose said.
Because the house didn’t appear to have specific historic significance, she said its demolition would not hurt the neighborhood. She complimented the renderings Bowland submitted of the planned new building.
“That will be an asset to the neighborhood and the town,” Rose said.
Commission member Laura Stearns agreed.
“I don’t like to see an older house torn down but it looks like it’s not structurally sound and it’s held together with duct tape,” she said.
Lisa Hall, a member of the Berlin Town Council, also took the opportunity to praise the project, comparing it to New York City’s iconic Flatiron Building.
“It’s a beautiful building,” she said. “It’s also smart growth.”
The commission voted 3-0 to approve demolition of the existing Jefferson Street home. Officials from Habitat are expected to return to the commission for formal approval of plans for the new building once the property, which is currently under contract, has been purchased.
In other meeting news, the historic district commission also granted Justine Zegna, owner of Blacksmith Berlin, approval to install a new sign. The illuminated sign will be located on the Pitts Street side of the restaurant. Zegna said the LED lit sign would help illuminate the dark side street.
“When you come into town it doesn’t seem like anything’s there,” she said. “I think it’ll be an asset to the building.”
Commission member Betty Tustin pointed out that there was a streetlight there that she thought created enough light and feared setting a precedent for illuminated signs.
Zegna pointed out that The Globe already had a lit-up sign.
“The precedent has been set,” she said, adding that she understood the concerns and had kept the light to one color with low wattage.
The commission voted 3-1, with Tustin opposed, to approve the sign.