Philbrick: 'Conventional development will not work' at Georgetown Wire Mill site
Redding resident and Harvard Design School graduate student Jane Philbrick presented a plan for the redevelopment of the Gilbert & Bennett wire mill site on Sunday, March 26.
She was joined at the Redding Community Center during her presentation by her organization TILL — a team of professionals including Niall Kirkwood, a Harvard professor and brownfield site expert, a financier and Redding-raised college students.
Philbrick said the group’s plan offers a “fresh approach” to the redevelopment of the wire mill, one that focuses on the health of Georgetown as a community rather than a developer’s bottom line.
“The primary objective (and fiduciary obligation) of conventional development is to maximize return on investment for equity partners,” Philbrick said in an email this week. “The primary objective of the town is a good town. A town seeks a high-quality development.”
Therefore, she said, “our interests are fundamentally opposite.”
A history lesson
Philbrick said she is surprised that after so many years of stagnation, some in town are still unsure of who even owns the property.
In brief, the wire mill stopped operating in 1989 and sat largely unused (with back taxes piling up) until 2002, when the town of Redding sold tax liens on the property to the Georgetown Land Development Corp. (GLDC) for $1 million.
The GLDC remains the owner of the wire mill property, but the corporation owes the town more than $2.8 million in back taxes and fines and has yet to undertake any significant work on the site. In 2015, the town filed suits to foreclose on and re-assume ownership of the property. This action has not been finalized by the courts, and the property remains in limbo.
Nevertheless, Philbrick said, it is prudent for the Redding and Georgetown communities to develop a clear plan for the site’s future, one that thinks beyond an outside developer’s financial interest.
It would seem that “30 years of effort would be testament enough” that conventional development — like that proposed by the GLDC — doesn’t work at this site, Philbrick said by phone last week.
“That approach has yielded this inert site that has lost value in the degradation of its fabric, and has accumulated massive debt and cost on top of the ‘legacy cost’ of 150 years of metal manufacturing,” Philbrick said.
By her estimates, it would cost a developer $92 million to produce a GLDC-style development on the site, including the cost of the least expensive environmental remediation option ($9 million), the cost of stabilizing historic buildings on the site ($42 million) and the existing GLDC tax liens and mortgages, taxing district mortgages and loans ($42 million).
“In this market you’re not going to have new development at the site” with those costs, she said.
Philbrick noted that even if the numbers worked for a conventional housing development project at the wire mill, there are many reasons for the community to oppose such a project.
For instance, she said, additional housing stock in the market in the $400,000 to $600,000 range “further depresses Redding property values” and housing-only development “provides nothing for Redding residents — no village center, no public space, no bakery …”
A Redding-oriented approach
Philbrick, a 22-year resident of Redding whose children attended local schools, said any development idea for the property must be community-oriented.
“The bones of our community and town and our legacy are the things that people want,” she said, like a “pioneering commitment to the environment, the arts and to technological innovation. Those have always been Redding’s prime drivers. We need something that is authentic to that identity.”
In terms of pioneering environmentalism, Philbrick’s plan proposes using phytoremediation to reclaim land damaged by chemicals and toxins used in the process of making wire for 150 years in Georgetown.
Ecological phytoremediation would involve using cost-effective living plant materials to sustainably reclaim land, creating a park-like setting with boardwalks for pedestrian travel at the wire mill site.
To tie the site into Redding’s long-term identity as a haven for artists, Philbrick proposes that live/work studios for artists be the first thing built on the site.
And to incorporate technological innovation into the plan, she proposes that the final step of the wire mill reclamation project include commercial space for an expanding, technology-oriented company that could bring hundreds of high-tech workers into the Georgetown community.
Philbrick said her research shows the best way to approach the redevelopment of a brownfield site is to do the project in phases, with low capitalization.
This allows the project to advance “much more organically,” Philbrick said. “We’ll be managing risks, and we won’t get out in front of ourselves and start building something customers don’t want.”
For this project, Philbrick’s proposed first phase would include building work/live spaces for artists, stabilizing the existing historical buildings, and instituting phytoremediation efforts on the site.
The second phase would include some commercial development in spaces designed for a restaurant, a co-working space, a gym, a hotel, and a design studio, housing development in millennial-oriented market-rate apartments and affordable housing apartments, and some surface-level parking.
The third phase would include commercial space for an anchor tenant — a technology-oriented company with a high-tech workforce, it is hoped — and additional surface parking.
One of the most important features of Philbrick’s plan, she said, is ongoing communication between residents and other stakeholders. To keep up on the project, she has initiated smaller break-out meetings in various places.
“We move forward now to smaller-scale meetings to allow more in-depth discussion,” Philbrick said, including meetings with the League of Women Voters, the Heritage Center Current Events Club and Weston stakeholders.