By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET – In one of the most ambitious residential projects in memory, a New York development company says it’s ready to spend “tens of millions” of dollars to finish what prior owners started at the sprawling Bernon Mills complex nearly two decades ago.
If all goes according to plan, Brisa Building Development LLC of Brooklyn would convert the four-structure complex into a village-like mix of office space, a small supermarket and a total of 60 studio and one-bedroom apartments – including 16 that already exist.
Though vacant portions of the site are lapsing into disrepair, the Front Street complex overlooking the Blackstone River is one of the most striking examples of 19th century mill architecture in the city. Unlike most old manufacturing buildings, which are made from red brick, the Bernon Mills are mainly fieldstone, granite and wood, dating back to 1827.
“They deserve to be saved,” says Jammad Graham, a managing partner for Brisa. “Honestly, the site is breathtaking. If you walk on the site, it’s like a postcard.”
Brisa is under contract to purchase the buildings, and roughly four acres of waterfront land they sit on, from Millbury Credit Union, which has owned the property since 2013. Graham says the company will take the next steps toward full acquisition of the parcel if its applications for subdivision approval and variances are okayed by the Planning Board and Zoning Board, which are to meet on May 11 and 24, respectively, to consider them.
According to City Planner Kevin Proft, Brisa’s plans include these components:
● Total rehabilitation of the largest structure on the site – actually two mills connected by an annex – into 41 studio and one-bedroom apartments ranging from roughly 400 to 950 square feet. The company would also add three more apartments to one of the four buildings on the site where 16 already exist.
● Construction of a fitness center on the site, with an open play area big enough for a small soccer court, in a new building roughly 90 feet by 45 feet.
● Conversion of the so-called “carriage house” – a garage-like structure, into a combination of office and retail uses, perhaps a small market.
● Restoration of the former Pierannunzi shoe repair shop, on the Court Street Bridge, to be used for office or retail.
City officials are clearly excited about the project.
Zoning Officer Carl Johnson says Brisa’s plans could be a catalyst that jump-starts more investment and commercial activity in the downtown area.
“I’ve always felt that we just needed one big project to hit it out of the park,” said Johnson. “I think this could be it.”
“It would be kind of a game changer for downtown to activate that site, individually, then also just to have 60 more residential units right near your economic center on Main Street,” he said. “It’s going to help support the businesses on Main Street...Rather than sitting vacant for years and years now, seeing that site activated is something the city has been hoping for for a while.”
Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt says Brisa is an example of just how much potential investors see in the city these days.
“We have gone from having interest from house lots, to building single-family homes, to projects of this magnitude,” the mayor said. “To me that’s an indicator there is interest from investors at all levels.”
Graham said Brisa normally takes on projects in the New York area, but the company learned about the availability of Bernon Mills complex through a broker. MCU had been using the MacMillan Group, a western Massachusetts company, to market the property, at one point listing it for nearly $3 million.
A Massachusetts native, Graham said he’s long admired mill architecture and saw tremendous potential in the Bernon Mills and its picturesque location on the river.
He declined to say how much money Brisa intends to sink into the Bernon Mills to rejuvenate the complex, but he said the figure would more than likely exceed $20 million from an assortment of financing sources.
One perk that’s keeping the project alive is a combination of state and federal historic tax credits worth $3.9 million, according to MacMillan. Developers can sell these credits to buyers who can use them as dollar-for-dollar write-offs on certain tax obligations.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Bernon Mills complex was the original home of the Woonsocket Mill Company, a textile manufacturing concern, and it also became the site of the city’s first electric company – the Woonsocket Electric Machine and Power Company.
Originally there were five major buildings on the site erected between 1827 and 1859, but one of them, known as Mill No. 3, built in 1835, was razed to make way for a hydroelectric station, according to the National Register’s nomination research.
Most modern-day historians trace the efforts to save the Bernon complex to Steve Lima, an independent businessman who briefly served as city planner in 2018 and, more recently, was elected to serve District 49 in the House of Representatives.
Lima acquired the complex in 2003 and envisioned converting it a residential hub for upscale Bay State commuters looking for relief from Boston’s stratospheric real estate prices.
According to previously published reports, Lima, who did most of the work himself, is thought to have sunk more than $3 million into site permitting, architectural and engineering fees, parking lots, roofing, framing, electrical and condominium renovations before he was crushed by the widespread collapse of the real estate “bubble” of 2008.
Although he was ready to embark on Phase 2 of the project at the time, by 2012 he had finished just three dwelling units when the market dynamics that made it possible to sell them vanished. Around 2013, he sold his interests in property to MCU, which has owned it since and continued to add residential units to one of the buildings.
At least one other suitor, a Connecticut manufacturer of fire suppression materials, announced in 2018 – apparently preemptively – that the company would relocate to the mill complex.
But Baldelli-Hunt said the important groundwork already done by prior owners to get the site shovel-ready bodes well for moving the project forward in Brisa’s hands.
“A project like this, with the millions of dollars of investment...it’s maybe a 50-piece puzzle that you have and you need all those pieces to create the picture of what the final product will be like,” she said. “This particular investor has been able to get to this point, which is furthest of all.”
Johnson sees smooth sailing going forward. The company comes to the planning board for subdivision approval before advancing to the zoning board, from which it seeks routine dimensional variances.
“This is a great project, I don’t see any issues going forward,” he said. “It’s a large complex in size, but not in the relief they’re looking for.”
Graham said Brisa could begin construction by the first quarter of 2022, maybe sooner, if it can get past the regulatory hoops without a major hiccup.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo