Old buildings are being abandoned in cities across the country. Schools have closed. Factories have shuttered. Jails have been replaced with new models.

But instead of meeting the wrecking ball, many of these tired buildings are finding new life as affordable housing. More than just providing a home for low- and moderate-income families, these ­developments are also helping revitalize their neighborhoods.

Their stories are not finished. They continue to be written.

Adaptive-reuse projects remove blighted buildings and add vitality to a neighborhood, says Gilbert Winn, CEO of WinnCompanies. (Photo: Ken Richardson)
Adaptive-reuse projects remove blighted buildings and add vitality to a neighborhood, says Gilbert Winn, CEO of WinnCompanies. (Photo: Ken Richardson)

Adaptive-reuse projects have been a big part of the work of WinnDevelopment, the development arm of Boston-based WinnCompanies.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on turning around troubled communities and investing in troubled communities,” says Gilbert Winn, CEO of WinnCompanies. “It’s both a social mission as well as an economic mission.”

Led by Larry Curtis, president and managing partner of WinnDevelopment, the firm has found good business opportunities in overlooked markets, and that includes many communities with older buildings that can be converted into housing. In the past 30 years, the firm has completed 28 historic renovations that have resulted in about 3,000 apartments. It has another dozen or so projects under construction or in predevelopment.

An old mill building has been turned into the Counting House Lofts by WinnDevelopment in Lowell, Mass.
An old mill building has been turned into the Counting House Lofts by WinnDevelopment in Lowell, Mass.


“If you’re in a city that has a preponderance of mill buildings, you’re probably in a local economy that has suffered over the past few decades,” Winn says. “While the buildings are beautiful, the economy could be struggling. We’re able to go in and address the community needs. Oftentimes, that’s mixed-income housing.”

In addition to creating new homes, adaptive-reuse projects have been critical in uplifting entire neighborhoods by renewing blighted buildings and giving them a new purpose.

“It’s almost more rewarding than a new-construction site ­because of that added element,” Winn says.

The firm recently completed Counting House Lofts, an 

$11.7 million, 52-unit development in Lowell, Mass. It’s one of several mill buildings in the region to be repurposed for modern-day living. Half of the apartments are affordable to households earning between 30% and 60% of the area median income (AMI), and half are market rate. 

The Metta Health Center, which focuses on the area’s Southeast Asian population, occupies the building’s more than 14,000 square feet of commercial space. The clinic had been on the property but has been able to expand into larger facilities.

The property was originally known as the Hamilton Manufacturing Company Storehouse and Counting House. The Storehouse building was first constructed in 1868 and was connected to the Counting House in 1879. The transformation required extensive work on the outside and the inside of the 147-year-old building.

“The interior was an open mill,” says Elizabeth Fish, vice president at WinnDevelopment. “We had to do the insulation, creation of the actual units, and environmental remediation.”

Fish has worked on about a dozen adaptive-reuse projects. The renovation of Counting House went pretty smoothly, but that’s not always the case. “With mills, when you get in there and start opening up walls, you can run into structural surprises,” she says.
  
That’s why a structural engineer is involved from the start. 

If a surprise does surface, the costs of addressing the problem would come from the project’s construction contingency.

WinnDevelopment is careful not to spend the contingency on any other items until it fully knows the structural situation.

Counting House is WinnDevelopment’s third adaptive-reuse project in Lowell. In 2007, the firm redeveloped an adjacent building into Loft Two Seven, a mixed-income community featuring 173 units. In 2005, it transformed the historic Boott Mills building into mixed-income housing with 232 apartments and commercial space. The company also plans to redevelop the nearby, vacant Adden Furniture Co. building.

Counting House was financed with four different tax credits—federal and state low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs) and federal and state historic tax credits—purchased by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Livingston School Apartments

WinnDevelopment also recently converted a historic school into 103 housing units for seniors in Albany, N.Y., a new market for the company.

The four-story, 230,000-square-foot landmark was built during the Depression to teach vocational skills to the unemployed and served as a public school until it became vacant in 2009. The company, in partnership with the Albany Housing Authority, has transformed the building into 12 studio, 76 one-bedroom, and 15 two-bedroom apartments. A mixed-income development, Livingston School Apartments serves residents 55 and older earning between 50% and 90% of the AMI.

“It’s a beautiful-looking building and has all the features of a historic structure, but it wasn’t in a specific national register district,” says Adam Stein, senior vice president. 


That meant the project was not automatically eligible to receive historic tax credits, so the development team had to go through a nomination process with state officials and the National Park Service to be able to receive historic tax credits.

Physically, the building’s classrooms lined up nicely to be converted into apartments. Stein estimates that about 70% of the existing door openings were maintained for the new, residential units.

More challenging was the school’s community space, which included a two-story auditorium and a massive library. A portion of the auditorium is being used for common amenities, but a large section has been set aside for future use. 

The library has been turned into a community room. Behind that, there is a new wellness center for visiting practitioners to do medical screenings and educational programs, according to Stein. 

WinnDevelopment has reimagined a landmark building into the Livingston School Apartments in Albany, N.Y. The development features 103 apartments for seniors earning between 50% and 90% of the area median income. (Photo: Christian Scully)
WinnDevelopment has reimagined a landmark building into the Livingston School Apartments in Albany, N.Y. The development features 103 apartments for seniors earning between 50% and 90% of the area median income. (Photo: Christian Scully)


Off the lobby, there used to be the principal’s office and other administrative offices. Those have been turned into the management office and the computer room. The Architectural Team served as the architect of both the Livingston School and the Counting House projects.

The $30 million project was financed largely with state and federal LIHTCs and state and federal historic tax credits. The tax credits were syndicated by Boston Financial Investment Management and purchased by KeyBank and Citizens Bank.

Being able to utilize historic tax credits is one of the benefits of many adaptive-reuse projects. These credits bring key financing to a deal and help drive down the use of limited housing ­resources. In fiscal 2014, the federal historic credit helped create or rehab 19,786 housing units, including 6,540 low- and moderate-­income units.

El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109

More than 53,000 people applied to live in El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109, one of the most prominent affordable housing developments to recently open in New York City.

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Artspace and El Barrio's Operation Fightback have transformed the long-abandoned Public School 109 in New York City into 89 units of affordable live/work space for artists. (Photo: James Shanks)
Artspace and El Barrio's Operation Fightback have transformed the long-abandoned Public School 109 in New York City into 89 units of affordable live/work space for artists. (Photo: James Shanks)

Developed by Minneapolis-based nonprofit Artspace Proj­ects, in partnership with El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, PS 109 is the first new affordable housing project for New York City artists developed since the 1970s.

It serves the El Barrio–East Harlem community in Manhattan with 89 units of permanent affordable live/work housing for artists and their families and an additional 13,000 square feet of space for arts and cultural activities, including a gallery and two performance spaces. The latter will be used by the resident nonprofit organizations and available for use by community groups beginning in 2016.

Rene Maynez is among the artists living at the recently opened El Barrio's Artspace PS 109. (Photo: James Shanks)
Rene Maynez is among the artists living at the recently opened El Barrio's Artspace PS 109. (Photo: James Shanks)

Three nonprofit arts organizations are located at PS 109: ­Hi-ARTS, El Taller Latino Americano, and the Shakespeare Forum.

To create PS 109, developers brought back to life an 1898, collegiate, gothic-style school that had been abandoned for nearly two decades. The building was designed by architect Charles B.J. Snyder, who was superintendent for school buildings for the New York City Board of Education from 1891 to 1923. The structure is five stories tall with a steeply pitched roof. Exterior details include several copper-clad cupolas, gargoyles, and a wealth of decorative terra-cotta. After the building was boarded up, much of the terra-cotta was removed; it’s been restored as part of the project. PS 109 was recently recognized with a New York State Historic Preservation Award.

El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109 marks Artspace’s 39th completed project across the country and its first in New York City. Artspace currently has an additional dozen projects in development or under construction in the United States. 

PS 109 features 50 studio, 18 one-bedroom, and 21 two-­bedroom units for residents earning 38% to 58% of the AMI.

“This will be a thriving center of cultural activity and an economic engine in our community,” says New York City Council speaker Melissa Mark Viverito. “Artists not only enrich our communities and help preserve neighborhood identity but also help drive our local economies.”

The $53.4 million project uses about $24.9 million in LIHTCs and $11.9 million in state and federal historic tax credits. Capital One invested in the housing and historic credits. Raymond James Tax Credit Funds was the syndicator. The city was also a big funder, contributing about $10 million via different agencies and offices.

El Barrio’s Artspace PS 109 assembled an impressive group of supporters for this project, including the Ford Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Bloomberg Philanthropies, ArtPlace America, JPMorgan Chase Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Booth Ferris Foundation, Deutsche Bank, and others. The lead architect was HHL Architects.

City Hall Artspace Lofts 

The former city hall in Dearborn, Mich., is about to become 53 units of live/work space for artists.

The large building had been used until about a year ago when city operations moved to a new administrative center.

The old city hall in Dearborn, Mich., is being converted into City Hall Artspace Lofts by Artspace. (Photo: Courtesy of Artspace)
The old city hall in Dearborn, Mich., is being converted into City Hall Artspace Lofts by Artspace. (Photo: Courtesy of Artspace)

“It had become functionally obsolete and expensive for the city to operate,” says Heidi Zimmer, senior vice president, property development, at Minneapolis-based nonprofit developer Artspace.

Artspace is renovating the landmark building into affordable housing, with construction expected to be completed in December. The studio and one-, two-, and three-bedroom units will serve artists and their families earning between 30% and 60% of the AMI. The building is loaded with beautiful touches, including terrazzo floors and extensive woodwork. One family will even make its home in the former mayor’s chambers.

The City Hall Artspace Lofts complex consists of three buildings: the city hall, the west annex building, and the concourse. The historic city hall and west annex buildings will house the residential units, a leasing office, corridor art galleries, a community room, and an outdoor patio. 

Connected to the residential buildings is the concourse building, which will be a creative commercial center. This unique, ­expansive space will house a business incubator that will provide training for entrepreneurs, creative businesses, and artists.

The $14.5 million development is being financed with approximately $8 million in LIHTC equity and $2.4 million in state and federal historic tax credits from Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Additional financing sources include a bridge loan from IFF, brownfield and HOME loans from the city, and a grant from the Ford Foundation.

Richland School Apartments 

Richland is a small farm community in eastern Oregon, not far from the Idaho border. Home to fewer than 200 residents, the town is made up of mostly seniors. The median age is 66. 

There are few housing options here. As the seniors have aged, they’ve had little choice but to pack up and move about 45 minutes away from their families and friends. 

Richland School Apartments meets the housing needs of the aging population in Richland, Ore. (Photo: Courtesy of Pinnacle Architecture)
Richland School Apartments meets the housing needs of the aging population in Richland, Ore. (Photo: Courtesy of Pinnacle Architecture)

“The community was losing all its seniors,” says Dale Inslee, executive director of the Northeast Oregon Housing Authority (NEOHA), in La Grande, Ore. “They were all having to go to Baker City to get housing that was safe—not that they needed assisted living, but the community just had these old ­farmhouses that had stairs, high porches, and inaccessible bathrooms.”

To help keep the seniors in town, Inslee turned to the boarded-­up Richland Elementary School. 

NEOHA transformed the old school, which dates to the 1950s, into 10 units of senior/disabled housing. A good example of an adaptive-reuse project in a small town, the development also houses a public library and community meeting space.

Pinnacle Architecture in Bend, Ore., worked to maintain much of the school’s character, says Peter Baer, president. This includes retaining the building’s large windows and converting outdoor overhangs into expansive patios for the apartments, which have encouraged residents to socialize.

With seven one-bedroom and three two-bedroom apartments, Richland School Apartments is small, but it delivers a big impact.

“In small towns, the school is pretty much the community life,” Baer says. “Once they close that school, that sort of takes the heart out of the community. A lot of these people went to school here, let alone their kids went to school here. It has a lot of emotional attachment for everybody.”

Schools often lend themselves to being converted into housing. Small apartments can be made out of large classrooms, and there aren’t a lot of structural walls that have to be removed.

“There’s usually a lot of natural light in schools, and this makes for wonderful spaces for apartments,” Baer says. “A lot of the ceilings in these buildings are 10 feet tall. It makes for great spaces.”

To finance the approximately $2 million project, the development assembled several sources of funding from Oregon Housing and Community Services, including about $1 million in HOME funds, $250,000 from the state housing trust fund, and $195,000 in Oregon affordable housing tax credits. No federal housing tax credits were used.

The local grange oversees the new meeting space, which used to be the school cafeteria. There are also early plans to turn the school gymnasium into a firehouse for the volunteer fire ­department.

North Street Senior Residences

The old jail building in Elkton, Md., has a whole new set of residents.

The Community Builders (TCB), Home Partnership of Cecil County, and the Elkton Housing Authority have reused the historic structure and developed a new building to provide 53 units of affordable senior housing.

North Street Senior Residences in Elkton, Md., combines a historic jail building with a new addition to deliver 53 apartments for seniors. (Photo: Adam Thompson)
North Street Senior Residences in Elkton, Md., combines a historic jail building with a new addition to deliver 53 apartments for seniors. (Photo: Adam Thompson)


Constructed in 1871, the building served as the local jail and sheriff’s residence until 1984, when a new jail was completed. The building served for a time as the Buckworth Senior Center but by 2007 was vacant again.

Despite the building’s prior use, the development team recognized its potential. For one thing, it was in an ideal location for senior housing, within walking distance of the local hospital, doctors’ offices, and the town hall, including the police department. 

However, there were significant challenges. The building was less than 10,000 square feet and wouldn’t yield many units, says Patrick Wagner, TCB senior project manager.

To create a development large enough to be operationally ­efficient, the team adapted the historic jail building and incorporated a new building on the oddly shaped lot.

The old building had two uses. The front part was made out of brick and housed the sheriff’s quarters, where he lived and worked. The back half was stone and held the cells.

 The developers created five apartments in the sheriff’s quarters, preserving historic windows, trim, and other elements. Working with architects Grimm + Parker, the team developed another 48 apartments in a new building that’s attached to the original structure.

The former cells are not used for housing. The rear of the building was previously modified to create a large, two-story space for the former senior center. This area is utilized as the community room for the entire building, and a small, one-story addition became the game room/fitness center.

“Having a great team with a lot of adaptive-reuse experience is critical,” Wagner says. “Design, construction, and finance need to all be creative, flexible, and tenacious in order to get to the finish line.”

Financing for the $11.1 million project includes $3.7 million in LIHTC equity from Boston Capital and $1.45 million in tax-exempt bond proceeds from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.  

North Street serves elderly individuals and couples with incomes ranging from 40% to 60% of the AMI; the majority of the apartments are targeted at 50% of the AMI. 

The development was also important for Elkton, says Wagner. North Street preserves an important historic building that might otherwise have been lost, and it contributes to the revitalization of the downtown neighborhood.