Increasing downtown residential housing is a new focus of the Washington Core Restructuring Committee.

Bridgette (Epple) Kelch, executive director of Downtown Washington Inc. and a member of Core Restructuring, spoke to the committee last week about the need for more housing in the downtown area, utilizing the second and third floors of existing buildings and new construction.

Kelch said the downtown group has been reviewing the city’s comprehensive plan to determine which projects it could help come to fruition.

“As part of the city’s comprehensive plan process, public input was sought, and it was exciting to see how many times downtown was mentioned,” she said. “Our economic restructuring committee decided to tackle increasing downtown residential living, but it’s a big project and we will need help, so that’s where Core Restructuring comes in.”

Kelch said after her presentation, core committee members expressed interest in working with the downtown group on the housing project.

Increasing residential living downtown is a win-win for businesses, she said, because it will help keep and attract merchants and boost property values.

Infill Map

To gain a better understanding of what’s available for possible residential downtown, Kelch said Downtown Washington Inc. is developing a list or map of infill properties — parcels currently vacant or being used for parking — and identifying who owns them.

“I think people might be shocked to see just how many empty lots there are downtown,” she said.

Kelch said a meeting could then be held with those property owners to learn what their long-term plans are and determine if there is any interest to develop the property for housing or possibly sell it to be developed by someone else.

Kelch said “gap financing” or some type of incentive program may be needed to spur development. 

As an example, she said a Community Development Corporation (CDC) could be formed where local banks join together and each put in a certain amount of money to loan out to a developer so the risk is spread among several banks, rather than just one.

Another possibility is a Community Improvement District (CID) where sales tax is captured in that specific district and then used toward improvements.

“A CID would be a huge undertaking and would have to go to a vote, but these are all incentives we could look at and determine if they could work,” she said. “First, we need to identify all of the available properties and owners, and see if there is any interest to develop the lots.”

Upper Floor Uses

The downtown group also is working to compile a list of how the second and third floors of downtown buildings are being used.

“Some are used for storage, others are simply vacant and in need of major repair, while some are being rented out,” Kelch said. “And with some upper floors we have no idea what’s going on with them.”

Again a meeting could be held with building owners to discuss possibilities for their upper levels, she said, and examples provided of what could be done in terms of residential housing. 

Kelch noted the downtown organization itself is a landlord, renting out the second and third floors of the Farmers’ Market building on Main Street.

“I have a waiting list for people interested in renting out those apartments,” she said. “These are professionals who want to live downtown, but there just isn’t enough housing for them now. It’s like that saying, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ 

“We feel people will move to downtown if we have the housing,” she added.

Kelch noted that Downtown Washington Inc. and Historic Washington Foundation board members participated in a daylong training with state Main Street officials in January to review board roles and responsibilities and set goals for 2014.

Board members also reviewed the city’s comprehensive plan at that time to determine which projects it could work on.

The strategic planning session covered all of the Main Street Four Point Approach committees — Design, Organization, Economic Restructuring and Promotion.