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City reveals plans for Ansonborough Field

Project includes an hotel and "affordable housing".
Warwick Jones, Editor

The City's plans for Ansonborough Field got their first airing last week before the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association (HANA). Few liked what they saw or heard. But there was no point in taking it out on the messengers.

A "world class" park?
Mr. Christopher Morgan who is interim Planning Director of the City, told HANA that development was planned for both the Southern and Northern ends of the 12 acre Field. There would be a "world class" park planned for the center of the Field though he could not be sure whether it was to be 3 or 5 acres. He assured HANA that the access would be easy to the green space, despite the development at both ends and the railway line that ran down the Western boundary.

A hotel and "affordable housing"
Along the Calhoun Street border of the Field, the City planned a mixture of uses. There would be two rows of buildings along the border. The corner that was closest to the Aquarium would host a 50-room hotel. Buildings beside and behind it would have various uses. There would be commercial and residential uses planned for those buildings fronting Calhoun Street. The second row of buildings would be largely residential. The residential space would be used for condominiums, to be sold at market prices and for "affordable housing". There would be 200 condominiums of which 100 units would be sold for "affordable housing" and 100 units at market rates. There would also be "affordable" units for rent.

For the southern end of the Field, Mr. Morgan was unsure of the development. He said that one of the buildings would be for a community purpose like a YWCA. The other might be for housing.

Whole project will be up for bid
Mr. Morgan said that the project would be put out to bid in its entirety. The City would look to interested parties and define a short list for final bidding. Construction was not expected to begin until next year at the earliest. No, the City would not be open to any risk. It would define what it wanted and the developer would be responsible for finding the appropriate parties such as an hotelier to run the hotel. The developer would also be responsible for selling and renting the units.

Residents fatigued
Ansonborough and other residents of the City are understandably fatigued in dealing with the issue of Ansonborough Field. Certainly the majority of Ansonborough residents don't want development. And at the charrette a few years ago, the majority of participants did not want development. But the Mayor tells us that we are wrong and that the majority of participants wanted development. I guess we wouldn't know despite the fact we attended each of the three meetings. But the Mayor is intent on having his way!

We have always thought that the development is largely motivated by a desire to prop up the ailing Aquarium. After all it is losing gobs of money and needs grants and donations of about $1 million a year to remain solvent. How long can this continue, particularly as some refurbishing is now looking necessary for the facility? There also remains over $8 million of debt that needs to be repaid.

Is a hotel right for this site?
But we have a few questions. A 50-room hotel across from the Aquarium? Are visitors to the City likely to choose this hotel, which is some distance from the main historic sections of the City? Considering the cost of construction, room prices are likely to be high. And will the construction of a hotel do much to boost visitors to the Aquarium, and help its finances?

And then there is the "affordable housing"! Council member Gilliard said at the council meeting where Ansonborough Field was discussed 3 years ago that anybody who did not support "affordable housing" on the Field was a racist! At that time he and possibly other council members were looking for "affordable housing" to be the only development. We look forward to hearing Council member Gilliard's view.

Putting "affordable housing" here does not make economic sense
But putting "affordable housing" on the Field is ridiculous in our view. It is not a race thing, it is pure economics. The units for "affordable housing" that are to be constructed most likely will be between 1000 and 1200 sq ft in size. The market value of these units is likely to be between $300,000 and $400,000. That's the price that units are being sold for across from the Field. By the time of construction, the market price may be more. To sell these units for "affordable housing" will mean sale prices of about $100,000 - $150,000. That's roughly about the maximum that can be paid by people earning around the 60-80% the median wage. Effectively, the City will be subsidizing "affordable housing" buyers to the tune of about $200,000 to $250,00 per unit. Multiply these figures by 100 units and you get at least $20 million of effective subsidy. The City may not be paying out this amount of money. But it is effectively deducting this amount of money from the consideration that the developer must pay the City for undertaking the development.

Our advice to the City is forget "affordable housing" at Ansonborough Field. We know that in appearance "affordable housing" these days in indistinguishable from other housing. But if the City really wants to provide "affordable housing", it will take the proceeds from the sale of the " affordable" units at market prices and use the funds to provide units in the East and West sides, or in the Neck area. "Affordable housing" units there can be constructed for perhaps $150,000 each and subsidies could be only $50,000 or so. Assuming an average subsidy of $50,000 per "affordable housing" unit, the City could help 400 prospective purchasers instead of the 100 at Ansonborough Field. Is this too logical?