New law could help convert older homes into apartments, avoid demo

Ken Yuszkus/Staff photoThe old Masonic Lodge on Washington Street in Beverly has been converted into apartments. A new ordinance being proposed would allow a homeowner or developer to divide older, larger homes into two units by right. While the ordinance wouldn't cover a commercial property like the former lodge, city planner Aaron Clausen pointed to it as an example of how a historic building could be repurposed. 

BEVERLY — Anyone who has ever dreamed of living in large, historic home, but doesn't have the cash sitting around to buy one could get their chance to make that dream a reality.

And these large, older homes would dodge the wrecking ball and have new life breathed into them through what city officials are calling the Cultural Heritage Properties ordinance.

The city's planning department drafted the ordinance, which would allow developers to divide large, single-family homes into two units by right. Developers could also create more units within the home, but would need to get special permit, according to city planner Aaron Clausen.

The idea, he said, is to give developers or homeowners the ability to preserve a historic home without having to keep it as a single family.

"There's obviously a larger inventory of them throughout Prides Crossing and Beverly Farms," Clausen said, but added that there's larger homes in other parts of the city, too.

Clausen said he hopes to have the ordinance to City Council toward the middle of the year.

Maintaing a larger home — think 5,000 to 7,000 square feet — "can be cost-prohibitive," Clausen said, if it stays a single family. That is the only option on the books for the city's residential zoning districts. Before, there was a use variance in place to convert these homes, but it was difficult to obtain and was eliminated from city zoning years ago. 

The ability to divide a home into separate units is seen as an incentive for preserving and maintaining a historic home, Clausen said. Under the proposed ordinance, the owner or developer would need to keep the current footprint of the home, as well as any historic architectural details.

While a home doesn't have to be a certain number of years old to meet the requirements of the ordinance, the home either has to have been deemed "historically significant" by the city's Historic District Commission, or it has to be listed, or recommended for listing, to the state or federal Register of Historic Places, according to Clausen.

There is no cap on how many units can be created, but Clausen said the gross square footage for each unit needs to be at least 1,500 square feet.

"Each building is going to be different," he said. For some properties, it could mean the main home is kept as single family, but the on-site carriage house is converted into a second residence.

The city plans on having public discussions over what the ordinance could mean for neighborhoods in terms of historic preservation as well as providing more housing.

"This is a way to provide additional housing that actually preserves the character of a neighborhood," Clausen said.

When considering whether a property is historically significant to the city, the matter may come before the Historic District Commission. In 2017, Clausen said there were 17 demolition delay requests, and the commission held public hearings for three of them. One of those properties, on 89 West St., was given a 12-month delay as it was found to be "historically significant and preferably preserved."

While a demolition delay is not related to whether a property will benefit from this ordinance, Clausen said the ordinance at least provides an alternative to tearing down a home.

The ordinance isn't a new idea. While it's typically called the "great estates" ordinance in other communities — Ipswich has one — Beverly's older, larger homes are often on much smaller pieces of land than what's typically thought of as an estate, Clausen said. 

Mayor Mike Cahill said the city has been working with Metropolitan Area Planning Council for the past couple of years on this. He said sometimes these older homes pass through generations of a family, but they have decided to sell it.

"What we've seen in Beverly and in other communities is that some of these older estates can be lost," the mayor said.

Over the last few years, some of the city's large older homes have met their end, or narrowly avoided it. These include 37 Paine Ave., which was purchased by a couple who intended to renovate it, but found this to be too costly and wanted to tear it down. That home is back on the market, according to online real estate listings. Another, the Loring House on Hale Street, was demolished in 2015.

The ordinance could work for homes throughout the whole city, he said.

"There are a number of them that we can think of that may show themselves as opportunities," Cahill said, especially along the waterfront.

He added that this alternative is "less destructive to a neighborhood."

"I think there's a real opportunity," the mayor said.

Arianna MacNeill can be reached at 978-338-2527 or at amacneill@salemnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SN_AMacNeill.

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