What if it is Habitat?


When the Economic Development Committee (actually a subcommittee of the Town Council) examined the two formal expressions of interest in the Old South Meeting House at its last meeting, they showed no interest in the proposal by a church in Norfolk to return the structure to its original religious use and, instead, gave their sanction to a detailed proposal from Habitat for Humanity to turn the 160-year-old structure into a multi-unit affordable housing.

In short-hand, they have voted for an adaptive reuse scheme that results in housing, whether through Habitat or some other organization. Their preference will likely be discussed during committee reports at the Wednesday, June 8 Town Council meeting.

The town’s solicitation stated that the town would consider reuse and redevelopment concepts for the property, “except the continued operation of the water boosting pumping station, which would put the property to productive use, and preserve the building’s historic exterior. The reuse and redevelopment will be subject to a permanent historic preservation restriction and/or affordable housing restriction.”

Habitat’s Pitch

Old Colony Habitat for Humanity, founded in 1989, an affiliate of the nonprofit ecumenical Christian housing organization. Its 25-town service area includes Franklin.

In their expression of interest, the wrote:

“Habitat would be thrilled to purchase the South Congregational Meeting house from the Town of Franklin for nominal consideration, renovate the Property, and ultimately provide the house to a deserving family

“Habitat has developed a preliminary plan with local architect Sam Willian of Craft Architecture LLC [Williams is also the Vice Chair of the Town of Franklin Design Review Commission] to determine what the renovated residence would look like. The proposed plans would turn the Property into a 3-4 bedroom 1 and ½ or 2-bathroom, single-family residence. The 1500-1800 square-foot home would contain a first floor and a loft with a master bedroom, bathroom, and storage area. if the town of Franklin were to sell Habitat the Property, Habitat would begin construction in the spring of 2023. We will also be discussing the opportunity to apply for the town’s CPA funds.”

The letter went on to note that Habitat’s project materials are typically provided through gifts and in-kind donations.

The process set up by the town was intended to solicit ideas and the town is under no obligation to respond. However, given that Habitat came with a thorough proposal and that few if any other organizations are likely to bring so much funding and/or in-kind assistance to the table, it would be surprising if the Town Council doesn’t agree with the EDC and a more formal process then emerges for moving forward.

And, again, assuming Habitat remains interested, a submission by them would be in a good position to win the town’s approval.

Habitat for Humanity

And if Habitat does eventually get the go ahead?

Kimberly A. Thomas, the recently appointed head of Old Colony Habitat, said while her organization has not previously tackled a historic restoration like Old South, other Habitat affiliates have.

“We have Board members and volunteers who have several types of expertise including construction, architects and project management expertise,” she said. And that experience includes rehabilitation in the past on a residence in Mansfield and experience with other types of construction and reconstruction.

The other challenge for the long-term will be ensuring that deed restrictions stay in force and aren’t subjected to future political pressure to do something different...

“While I’m not familiar with the specific situation in Franklin, reusing historic buildings for new purposes is an excellent way to ensure that historic architecture continues to be used and cared for, preserving the cultural history of communities and contributing to their ongoing vitality,” said Carissa Demore, Team Leader for Preservation Services at Historic New England.

“There is a long tradition throughout New England and across the country of adapting churches, train depots, school houses, light houses, and all sorts of historic buildings to create housing,” she added.

One way to ensure a historic building is preserved in its new use is to protect it via a preservation restriction (also commonly called a preservation easement or covenant). Demore said a preservation restriction is a legal agreement that gives a preservation organization or agency the ability to ensure that the historic character of a place is preserved, while allowing it to be adapted to new purposes. “Many municipalities hold these types of restrictions, as does Historic New England through our Preservation Easement Program, which protects 118 properties across New England,” she said. Demore said such agreements are a great way to connect new property owners with experts in historic preservation, so properties continue to be preserved for many years to come.

Preservation and affordable housing are not mutually exclusive. In fact, both aim to support and improve the livability of communities,” she added.

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