Banker & Tradesman: Brockton’s “Step in the Right Direction”

Brockton is a 35-minute train ride from Boston’s South Station and a century removed from its thriving era as an industrial hub that nearly 100 shoe companies called home.

The decline of the city’s manufacturing base brought rising crime and poverty, and the post-war suburban boom emptied the downtown of many of its stores and restaurants. In 2015, the downtown has emerged as the focus of a multi-pronged strategy to rebuild the city’s core.

The initial phase of Boston developer Trinity Financial’s mixed-use Enterprise Block development, which opened in August, contains the first market-rate apartments built in downtown Brockton in decades.

“They’re focused on growing the economy, keeping up the pipeline of projects and making sure the city and commonwealth continue to invest in Brockton,” said Matt Zahler, senior project manager for Trinity Financial. “If they can do that, we can continue to bring private investment on the scale they need to revitalize the city.”

Economic development officials view the 113 loft units as a potential down payment on a larger redevelopment program. The city is looking at breaking out the major tools for economic revitalization in the Bay State, including district improvement financing (DIF) to pay for projects designed to make a 191-acre area safer for visitors and more attractive to investors. It’s considering a major urban renewal project that could involve the acquisition of up to 44 acres of underutilized properties for potential transfer to redevelopers.

An All-Or-Nothing Proposition

Economic development took a backseat to fiscal austerity during the Great Recession. The city laid off its planning director in 2008 and didn’t hire a replacement until mid-2014, more than a year after current Mayor Bill Carpenter took office.

Downtown revitalization is now on the front burner, with the culmination of the Enterprise Block first phase viewed as a key vote of confidence from the private sector and model for future development. Trinity Financial, which has developed a specialty building affordable housing in Gateway Cities, stepped into the picture in 2011, nearly a year after Dedham-based Economic Development Finance Corp. backed out of plans to redevelop the former newspaper headquarters spanning an entire block.

It took two years for Trinity to assemble financing through a mix of state and federal tax credits for low-income housing and historical preservation and a $4 million MassWorks infrastructure grant, along with traditional debt and equity. The state Department of Health and Human Services leased 29,000 square feet as anchor tenant for the office space.

“It kind of all had to happen. It was all or nothing,” Zahler said. “It was a Herculean effort to some degree.”

Trinity is in negotiations with private tenants for the remaining 18,000 square feet of office space. Triple-net rents are in the high teens to low-$20s per square foot, with negotiable tenant improvements, Zahler said. Another 6,300 square feet of retail or restaurant space also is on the market.

The Enso Flats residential space is 100-percent leased in under three months, with 42 market rate units filling up first at rents ranging from $1,100 to $1,600. The rest of the complex is restricted to artist lofts and affordable units for renters earning a maximum of 60 percent of the area median income.

“We had a high-quality product that we delivered to an underserved population,” Zahler said.

Groundbreaking of the second phase – including 102 mixed-income apartments – is contingent upon receipt of an $11 million grant from the state’s MassWorks infrastructure program for a parking garage with up to 371 spaces. The next round of grants will be announced later this month. Trinity Financial would develop the garage and turn over ownership to the city upon completion.

Growth Could Fund Public Improvements

Brockton is exploring the state’s 12-year-old district improvement financing (DIF) program to leverage the tax growth associated with the Enterprise Block.

The city hired Concord-based consultants A.G. Jennings LLC to study the potential for DIF to pay for infrastructure and economic development planning. The 12-year-old DIF program enables Bay State communities to establish a district in which property tax revenues from new development are earmarked to pay for improvements. The DIF can be used to take out loans to pay for the improvements up-front, with the new taxes used to pay the debt service.

The study calculated projected new taxes from the Enterprise Block and redevelopment of the Kresge Building at 121 Main St., where a developer is considering market-rate housing and retail.

The increase in assessed value would generate revenues of nearly $500,000 and support a loan of $9 million that could be used to pay for DIF improvements, according to the A.G. Jennings report completed in February. The figure is based upon a 30-year term at 3.5 percent interest.

Adoption of the DIF is contingent upon city council approval, but the city has already begun public outreach including a call for ideas for downtown improvements.

Addressing Public Safety, Attracting Foot Traffic  

Many of the suggestions are designed to bring foot traffic back to the downtown, which continues to be plagued by high vacancy rates and scant private investment. In community surveys, residents were blunt about the area’s shortcomings. “A hundred years ago, there was a city here.” “No restaurants, no services, no homes. Why would you be here?”

Some bright spots have emerged in recent years, with the decision of office supply company W.B. Mason to expand downtown, helped by $300,000 in state tax credits.

But poverty and violent crime continues to influence local perceptions of the area. Brockton had the state’s highest murder rate in 2014, and the poverty rate lingers at 18 percent.

More than 100 residents and downtown stakeholders attended a recent planning workshop, discussing the district’s shortcomings and talking about ideas for public programming such as festivals and farmers’ markets to generate more foot traffic.

Ideas for how the DIF funds could be spent are already emerging. Abandoned trolley tracks poke through Centre Street, which needs to be rebuilt, and the city would like to install a conduit for a new fiber-optic system that would increase data capacity, said Rob May, Brockton’s director of planning and economic development and a former economic director in Somerville. A downtown ambassador-type program similar to the one in Boston’s Downtown Crossing could alleviate pedestrian safety concerns.

The urban renewal project could encompass 44 acres surrounding the commuter rail station currently occupied by vacant parking lots, a pair of small restaurants and a used car dealership. If the city acquired the parcels, it could package them into larger development blocks that would give developers more flexibility and speed of acquisition as opposed to negotiating with multiple owners, May said.

Stantec provided the city with a massing study giving options for building out the various parcels with the goal of maximizing the value of the development.

“A lot of it revolves around where is the best bang for the buck in the city in building a parking facility, and how do we use that to leverage development on other lots around downtown,” May said.

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