Patience Sustains Developer’s Vision
Careful planning, the right combination of funding, and persistence allow a project to succeed in the face of hurdles.
Published in Commercial Architecture on July 5, 2017 in Architecture, Interior, Featured, Interiors
Most projects, especially those involving the adaptive reuse of an historic property, are likely to have a significant backstory about how that project succeeded against the odds and maybe even a legendary leader who inspired it all. The Cable Mills Lofts development in Williamstown, MA, is no exception.
The conversion of a mill complex, built between 1873 and 1984, into a contemporary residential community was the vision of Robert Kuehn, founder of Keen Development, and one of Boston’s early champions of affordable housing. His untimely passing made the final realization of his vision all the more poignant.
Kuehn was drawn to complicated projects that required careful planning that others thought impossible. It is said much of his ability to get difficult projects up and running was due to his diplomatic, easy-going style, which was appealing to those with whom he had to work, including politicians.
Kuehn stumbled across the aging mill complex while at a planning meeting across the street. As the story goes, Kuehn was in the market for a new project when it presented itself to him and he took it. What unfolded was unexpected, and took more than fourteen years to complete, but transformed an aging, ready-to-be-demolished site into a thriving, lively community with enhanced site amenities that can be enjoyed, not just by Cable Mills Lofts residents, but everyone in the community.
The project almost perished in 2006 with the unexpected death of Kuehn but was revived by Bart Mitchell’s company, Mitchell Properties, Boston, and Dave Traggorth, then a project manager for Mitchell. Eventually, Traggorth formed his own firm, The Traggorth Companies, and continued to work with the design team at Finegold Alexander Architects, Boston, who considered the project through the lens of urban-planning design principles. The legendary Boston firm lent its expertise in historic restoration and renovation and its project management finesse to the redevelopment.
Thus, the Cable Mill came to have “three fathers”—first, Kuehn, whose visionary hopes for the site set it into motion; then Mitchell, who purchased the site after Keuhn’s demise; and finally, Traggorth who took the project to completion as he moved from project manager to developer. If there were three fathers, Finegold Alexander Architects was the thread that provided continuity, adaptability, and collaboration, from the very beginning to the end.
The architects at Finegold Alexander define urban planning and design as a comprehensive technical and political process concerned with the development and use of land, protection of the environment, and the design of a sustainable community. This type of small-town planning involves new urbanism principals, regional and urban design, and contextual town development. Cable Mills is an example of those concepts applied within a rural setting.
“In reality, this is a project that did not start off as a traditional urban-planning assignment,” noted senior associate, Christopher Lane, Finegold Alexander Architects. “However as it progressed and funding sources evolved, its success is a model for the development of distressed properties in rural settings.” Traggorth secured funding from numerous sources, including the Property and Casualty Initiative, established by thirteen Massachusetts-based property and casualty insurance companies to promote economic development by providing loans to high-impact projects in communities across the Commonwealth; Boston Community Capital, a nonprofit community-development financial institution which provided the original acquisition loan to Kuehn; the Commonwealth of Massachusetts through the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Trust Fund; the Town of Williamstown through the Massachusetts Community Preservation Act; and the National Trust Investment Corp. as the federal historic tax-credit partner.
Built in 1873, the General Cable Mill was the third mill built in Williamstown, a rural town in a bucolic setting that has become a haven for intellectuals, bohemians, and nature lovers. Williamstown, home of Williams College, is a scenic, quiet little town at the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains at the crossroads of New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont—an area filled with world-renowned educational and cultural institutions including The Clark Art Museum, MassMOCA, and the Williams College of Art.
Between 1873 and 1930, the mill was used by a succession of owners for various purposes including the manufacturing of twine, dyeing, and weaving. From 1936 to 1984, the building was used to produce wire and cable. The original mill complex consisted of 15 buildings. As the project unfolded, eight of those buildings, totaling 96,000 sq. ft., were renovated.
Finegold Alexander Architects created a multi-phase master development plan and designed the Phase I adaptive use of the historic mill buildings for conversion into 61 housing units and shared outdoor space. The complex contains a mix of lofts and one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments. The units feature exposed brick walls, high, wood-beamed ceilings, large steel-replica operable windows, and energy-efficient mechanical systems. The project also includes extensive landscaping and the creation of a public River Walk along the Green River. Community members as well as residents benefit. The area has thrived and become completely renewed, and an entire conservation area has received a much-needed lift. However, it wasn’t an easy or a linear path to success.
The Starts And Stops
The saga of the reincarnation of Cable Mills illustrates the financial complexities often encountered by projects of its kind. It begins with General Cable Industries selling the complex to Robert T. Kuehn, founder and president of Keen Development Co. in Cambridge, MA. Kuehn paid $400,000 for the property in 2003, intending to convert the mill building into apartments and offices. Kuehn retained Finegold Alexander as planners and designers and brought on Boston Community Capital as acquisition and lender for soft costs for the design work.
In the following two years, his company, Keen Development, did preliminary work on the property until Kuehn suffered a fatal heart attack in 2006. As a mentor to many in the development industry and someone with the ability to get the toughest projects done, his death was devastating blow to the community and the project. Cable Mills was put on the market and after more than 25 developers considered it, Mitchell Properties LLC, Boston, bought it. Founded in 2000 by Bart Mitchell, a Williams College alumnus, the company developed residential, retail, and mixed ventures in Massachusetts.
Mitchell purchased the Cable Mill complex, consisting of the four-story mill building and two smaller buildings on an approximately nine-acre site in June 2007. Later that year, the Williamstown zoning board approved the plans for the project, which called for transforming the complex into 61 condominium units within the historic mill buildings, including 13 affordable/subsidized housing units, and constructing a total of 21 new townhouses and duplexes along the river.
Though the zoning board approved Mitchell’s plans for The Cable Mills project in 2007, due to the recession in 2008, Mitchell was unable to move forward with the project as lending for condominium development projects dried up entirely.
While waiting out the recession, and recognizing the enduring value of the mill property, Mitchell and the team protected its investment in the complex by stabilizing the former mill building in 2009. In addition, the town of Williamstown stepped up, voting at annual town meetings of 2007 and 2009 to approve a total of $1.55 million in Community Preservation funds for the Cable Mills project, allotting one-third for affordable housing, one-third for preservation of the historic mill buildings, and the final third for the walking path along the Green River. The now completed project stands as a model for the effective use of Community Preservation Act funds in the Commonwealth.
Later in 2010, Bart Mitchell was tapped to lead the Community Builders, a national non-profit that focuses on affordable housing, leaving the project to Dave Traggorth, and his new development and consulting venture, Traggorth Companies.
Working closely with Traggorth, the design team and the town forged ahead from 2010 to 2014 converting the project to apartments from condominiums and raising the necessary capital that was now available as a result of the change.
After the awarding of sufficient federal and state historic tax credits, along with an award from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts funding for the 13 affordable apartments, the project was reapproved by the town zoning board of appeals in February 2014, readying the project for a construction start.
As the economy continued to improve, the creativity of the design and development team started to pay off as NEI General Contracting based in Randolph, MA, was awarded the project and financing closed in February 2015.
At the ribbon cutting in May 2016 attended by state and local officials along with community members and new residents, Dave Traggorth summed up the project. “We’ve learned how to be patient. A couple of months here or there don’t matter. The most important thing was getting it right. That’s what we focused on.”
Other than financing, there were other challenges confronting the development team. “This was one of the most decayed projects we have ever worked on,” noted Christopher Lane, of prior projects with Finegold Alexander Architects. Lane served as the project manager and Jim Alexander, senior principal, was the principal-in-charge.
“The biggest issue here was simply the enormous extent of masonry restoration and decay in the building. Balancing how far to take it for repair versus rebuilding was an issue. There were places where the whole brick end of a building was gone and had to be completely reconstructed. Some portions of the masonry, stabilized in 2009, had to be redone when the project finally went ahead in 2014,” Lane continued.
In addition, there were some siting issues. The site is bordered by Green River conservation land. The project was subject to riverbank stabilization work before the permeable public Riverwalk was constructed. The Riverwalk also required designated extra parking for walkers.
Other Design Challenges
A significant design challenge faced by Finegold Alexander Architects was evaluating which buildings to keep, noted Alexander. “As with any large complex spanning over 100 years, many alterations and poor-quality additions were made to the original mill brick buildings,” he added.
The design team identified the most historic and usable eight structures, all built between 1895 and 1924. The re-use of these buildings required demolition of more than 80,000 sq. ft. of useless, dilapidated in-filled sheds and warehouse, many from the 1940s and 1950s. This allowed the remaining 90,000 sq. ft. to be economically reused and also available for federal and state historic tax credits. An additional benefit of the demolition was the creation of new entry courtyards and exterior recreation spaces.
Windows were a particular challenge at Cable Mills, noted Lane. “Because the complex was built and added to at different times in its history, there was a hodge-podge of window openings ranging from some less than 4 ft. tall to others standing over 9 ft. There were more than 20 types of windows at the site ranging from traditional steel industrial windows, double hungs, awning windows, to captured hopper windows, where the middle of the window pivots. Since historic tax credits were involved, National Park Service approval was required for the replacement windows.”
According to Bill Wilder, director of technical sales for the window supplier, Graham Architectural Products, York, PA, arriving at the right solution wasn’t easy. “You’re trying to replicate with insulated glass an appearance that basically meets the minimal amount of material required to hold a single piece of glass. So that becomes a challenge–trying to meet the historic criteria while meeting the structural requirements and the enhanced thermal performance as well.”
Cable Mill Lofts was named as the award winner for Biggest Impact Rural/Suburban by Preservation Massachusetts, Plymouth, MA, a non-profit preservation organization dedicated to preserve the state’s historic heritage. The award was presented at the organization’s annual Power of Preservation Awards in May 2017.
Bringing the Cable Mills project to completion was made possible by a high degree of patience, planning, and cooperation. It stands as a testament to the vision of those who conceived it and saw it through.
Traggorth Companies LLC, Boston
Finegold Alexander Architects, Boston
NEI General Contracting, Randolph, MA
DM Berg Consultants PC, Needham, MA
Building Engineering Resource, Easton, MA
Surveyor, Civil Engineer, Landscape Architect (hardscape)
Guntlow Associates Inc., Williamstown, MA
McPhail Associates LLC, Cambridge, MA
Hazardous Materials Consultant
Axiom Partners Inc., Wakefield, MA
Landscape Architect (softscape)
Offshoots Inc., Boston
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