WINCHESTER — A former member of City Council has announced plans to convert the long-vacant ZeroPak apple-processing and storage facility on North Cameron Street into an affordable housing complex.
"I'm very excited about this project," real estate developer John Willingham, who served three terms on council from 2009 through 2020, said on Friday.
Willingham has assembled a group of local and national development, design and financing experts to flesh out the proposed ZeroPak housing project, which would exclusively serve low-income individuals and families who meet the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's financial criteria. HUD states that people who earn 80% or less of an area's median household income — the median income is currently $81,400 in Winchester — qualify for the reduced rents offered by affordable housing projects.
Willingham said the ZeroPak development would occur in two phases. The first would convert the property's largest building at 567 N. Cameron St. into low-cost apartments for individuals and families. The second would require new construction of an age-restricted apartment building for people 55 and older with low incomes.
"The first phase will have approximately 130 units and then the second phase will have probably 50 to 60 units," Willingham said.
Apartments will range in size from one bedroom to three bedrooms, but he declined to give a specific breakdown of units because the project is still in its infancy and designs are subject to change. He also declined to say how much it would cost to build the apartments.
If all goes well, Willingham said, construction could begin by the end of next year.
Affordable housing has become a hot topic in Winchester. A recently released housing study revealed that residents of 4,029 of the city's 6,617 rental households would qualify for affordable housing. While there is currently a fair amount of housing stock for people who earn 50% or more of the median household income, there are only 1,253 rental units that HUD considers affordable for the 1,943 households that earn less than 50% of the median household income.
"The housing study is sort of smacking us in the face with the need for this," Willingham said. "Affordable housing is a critical need in our community, and affordable senior housing is a critical need for our community."
There are hurdles standing between concept and reality. Willingham said construction cannot happen without the awarding of tax credits from the state and federal governments that encourage the building of affordable housing, and obtaining those credits is a long, complicated process. Also, the city would have to rezone the site from commercial to residential, and developers plan to ask that a WinTran public bus stop be added to assist residents without transportation.
"All those things have to come together," Willingham said. "We can only control what we can control, and I feel good about what we've done so far."
As of Friday, Willingham said city officials had been informed about the project but no formal steps had been taken to start earning the necessary permissions.
"We have had discussions," he said. "We hope the city will be supportive."
City Manager Dan Hoffman last week scuttled a proposal to build affordable housing for seniors in Friendship Park, which is located in Winchester's North End, due to citizens' concerns about taking away public land for private development. Hoffman has said he remains committed to developing affordable housing, particularly in the city's North End where the majority of residents earn low to moderate incomes.
Willingham said the ZeroPak project was in the works before the Friendship Park proposal was introduced and is not related to that thwarted development.
"We have been working and doing due diligence on the project for the last six or seven months," Willingham said. "We're able to provide a solution, at least a small solution, for the growing need we have in our community [for affordable housing]."
Willingham said he wants ZeroPak to show other developers how it's possible to build quality affordable housing for the city's most vulnerable residents while still turning a modest profit for investors. His biggest hope is that ZeroPak will become a catalyst for further development — especially residential development for financially struggling individuals and families — in Winchester's often overlooked North End and beyond.
"You look at how projects and streets improve, it's one at a time," Willingham said. "But somebody has to be that pioneer. For us, we think this is an appropriate location for us to be an affordable housing pioneer for our community."
ZeroPak, he said, has been somewhat of an albatross around the city's neck. The 288,500 square feet of buildings on the property's 6.6 acres have been empty or underutilized since the mid-1990s. It is currently owned by Jeff and Miriam Javan of Potomac, Md., who bought it in February 2014 for $585,000. Willingham's development group has the site under contract and will buy the property if the financing and administrative approvals come through.
"That building represents who we are and where we came from," Willingham said, noting the proposed apartment complex would retain the ZeroPak name and include design elements honoring the Winchester area's history as a leading apple producer. "If we don't do something with it, we're going to lose a huge piece of our history. It's a building that has been vacant, that will probably be deemed derelict or blighted. This, in my opinion, is probably our last hope to preserve that history."