The Matto family has presented updated conceptual plans to rebuild at the Howe Avenue site destroyed by the massive downtown fire in early January.
Family representatives recently showed the plans to the Planning and Zoning Commission’s (P&Z) Downtown Subcommittee for an informal review and discussion.
The new four-story structure would include 16 “high market value” apartments, five ground-floor retail stores, and second-floor flex space for such activities as yoga and ballroom dancing.
There also would be new off-street parking in the rear, close to the municipal parking lot in front of the post office.
The building would replace the 19th-Century structure that burned down, which housed about two dozen small apartments and approximately eight storefronts. The previous structure also was four stories in height.
“It’s compatible with the area and would be an enhancement of what was there,” said Dominick Thomas, an attorney who represents the Mattos.
The parcel is 0.41 acres in size and located at the heart of the city’s downtown. Most of the property now is vacant and surrounded by a fence. The legal owner is Ralph Matto.
Being treated as new application
P&Z staff concluded that the updated concept varies enough from the previous building that it will have to go through the zoning process as a new application, and not be grandfathered in. The Mattos and their representatives agreed to that approach.
Rick Schultz, city P&Z administrator, said the new plan is “a deviation from the pre-existing, non-conforming building,” and the Mattos therefore will likely apply for a Planned Development District (PDD) to move forward with the project.
A PDD designation would give the P&Z more control over the building’s architecture and give the developers more flexibility in having to meet the current zoning regulations for the parcel, Schultz said.
A PDD application is somewhat conceptual and the first part in a two-step process. A developer also must get site plan approval, which involves more specifics.
Very conceptual for now
Thomas said the building design remains very conceptual at this time.
“Architecturally, nothing is solid,” he said. “That’s way down the road, when we get to the P&Z [in the application phase].”
According to Thomas, the apartments would be larger than the previous ones, a few apartments could be turned into offices, and two-story retail elements are a possibility. “It depends on a lot of things,” he said.
The community space would be above where Liquid Lunch and the Joy Lee Restaurant were located. It’s tentatively called the Center for Therapeutic Movement Arts and would offer community flex space for wellness-related activities such as yoga, Pilates, Zumba, fitness classes, ballroom dancing, and extracurricular school programs.
The parking would likely involve one space per apartment unit as well as additional spots for the retail tenants. Thomas noted there is ample public parking in the area, both on-street and in municipal lots.
New City Hall issue
Thomas said the building would be “incorporable with anything else that could go around it.”
That’s important because Mayor Mark Lauretti is contemplating the idea of building a new City Hall in the vicinity. The Matto land could be incorporated into such a plan, or perhaps a new City Hall would be built adjacent to it.
The city owns a number of parcels in the immediate area.
Lauretti said he is aware of the Mattos’ new conceptual plan and that he continues to talk with the family about the idea of the city possibly buying the land. “We’re just sharing information and ideas,” he said.
The city could possibly make an offer to buy the Matto property, Lauretti said.
The new City Hall project remains theoretical for now, he said, but he will continue to look into the idea. “I’m going to get active in this thing and try to draw some conclusions,” Lauretti said. “It has to be vetted. We need to see it through.”
Limited ‘window of opportunity’
A limited “window of opportunity” exists to pursue such a project, with the chance to put a new municipal building in the middle of the central business district being rare, he said.
Lauretti said the downtown post office property, owned by the U.S. Postal Service, could possibly be acquired for a new City Hall project. “It’s not really an impediment,” he said.
The city already owns the large parking lot in front of the post office, the Echo Hose firehouse on Coram Avenue, the L-shaped parking lot off White Street between the firehouse and the Pierpont Building, the probate court building on White Street, and a vacant building at 479 Howe Avenue that previously was a health district office, police station and firehouse.