Montpelier's French Block: Historic preservation with 18 energy efficient apartments

  • The French Block, dating from 1875

    Smack in the middle of a capitol city with a daunting shortage of housing, the French Block’s vacant upper stories were an unrealized resource. Today, with the lights on at night, there is a new vibrancy to this downtown block and 18 households have found stable, decent, and affordable housing within walking distance of all the amenities this small city provides.  

    In a historic downtown block on Main Street in Montpelier, the capitol of Vermont, the French Block was an ambitious, $6.1 million development that rehabilitated 18 second and third floor apartments that had been vacant since 1937. The architect for the project worked unsuccessfully with five different clients over the last 35 years to rehabilitate the building before Downstreet Housing & Community Development, the local affordable housing developer, took it on, working with Housing Vermont. Prior to rehab, code violations pertained to exits, fire separations, ADA shortcomings, structural deficiencies, hazardous materials, energy shortcomings, leaking roof, antiquated electrical, plumbing and heating, and deteriorated finishes. The developers persevered, and after residents moved in, citizens were delighted to see that once again, the “lights are on” in this core downtown building. The residents live within easy walking distance of the market, pharmacies, the library, services, public transportation, and health care providers.

    US Senator Patrick Leahy said, "I'm particularly proud and excited to see this transformation in my hometown of Montpelier. I delivered newspapers as a child to the French Block building! These apartments will mean more people living downtown, adding to the vitality of the community. That's why we choose to invest in housing, because its impacts go beyond the home to health, education, and community development. Housing makes our communities stronger and our neighborhoods healthier." 

    Today, there are 18 new apartments in the heart of downtown affordable to a range of incomes from 30% to 80% of median. Residents in the 16 one-bedroom and 2 studio apartments include seniors and one- and two-person households. One of the first new residents to move in was Cindy McCloud. She appreciates the historic details and the character provided by retaining the original trim work and brick walls. Location is also key for her.

    Resident Cindy Jones. Ben DeFlorio photo“I have grandkids in town”, says resident Cindy McCloud, “One of them comes over after school before his music lesson. I told him, “You’ll have to come to my new place.’” It’s conveniently located right along his route. Being downtown also makes getting out in any weather possible. “Now I can even walk in the winter,” Cindy said.

    Along with stable, affordable housing in a convenient location, the apartments are now free of hazardous materials such as lead paint, asbestos and PCBs. New life safety measures include a sprinkler system, and fire, smoke, and carbon dioxide alarms; a new elevator provides accessibility to the upper stories. Energy efficiency measures will reduce operating costs, increasing sustainability as affordable housing and minimizing the carbon footprint, while ensuring resident comfort. In addition to continuous air sealing of the building envelope, the developers installed energy efficient water heaters, a cold climate air source heat pump system for heating and air conditioning, balanced ventilation, and LED lighting throughout the apartments. The original single-pane windows and skylights were replaced with new insulated windows matching the design of the original windows, allowing for significant reductions in the operating budget.

    Downstreet Housing & Community Development (the local affordable housing development organization) and Housing Vermont (statewide low-income housing tax credit syndicator and developer) were the non-profit developers. The City designated $175,000 from the City’s Housing Trust Fund (raised from a $.01 charge per dollar of assessed value of real estate subject to property tax), a $5,000 municipal contribution, and a $500,000 CDBG loan. The Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, an independent state agency, committed $652,000 in state funds, federal HOME Program and Lead Paint Hazard Abatement funds. The Vermont Housing Finance Agency allocated tax credits to the development and made a $360,000 loan through the New England Federal Credit Union. Tax credit investors were the TD Bank and Northfield Savings Bank. NeighborWorks and Efficiency Vermont, Vermont’s energy efficiency utility, also contributed funding.    

    The historic restoration of the French Block brought 18 previously long vacant apartments back on the market, serving low- and moderate-income households in a downtown setting. The developers increased energy efficiency while keeping the historic character of the building intact and creating permanently affordable housing. A strong collaboration between state, federal, and municipal entities achieved the multiple goals of affordability, energy efficiency and historic preservation. 

    • Opening event
      Opening event with developers, residents, citizens, and municipal and federal officials. Andy Duback photo.
    • Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson, Nancy Owens, President of Housing Vermont, Senator Patrick Leahy, and Representative Peter Welch
      Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson, Nancy Owens, President of Housing Vermont, Senator Patrick Leahy, and Representative Peter Welch at the ground breaking event
    • The upper two stories with apartments had been uninhabited for 75 years
      Original wallpaper in the long vacant apartments. Tom Stevens photo
    • doorway of an apartment prior to rehabilitation
      doorway of an apartment prior to rehabilitation. Tom Stevens photo
    • Original skylights were restored
      Original skylights were restored and archways retained. Sally McCay photo
    • Worker preparing to replace original windows with energy efficient ones
      Worker preparing to replace original windows with energy efficient ones. Jeb Wallace Brodeur photo
    • The historic 1875 French Block in Montpelier, Vermont
      The historic 1875 French Block in Montpelier, Vermont