Bringing the DeWitt Block back to life in Brattleboro

Rendering courtesy Brattleboro Savings & Loan

Vermont Business Magazine The DeWitt Block, a long-empty piece of Flat Street’s history in downtown Brattleboro, is being given a new life. Standing next to the Brattleboro Transportation Center, the former Sanel Auto Parts store was constructed over 100 years ago as a grocery warehouse and, though it has received interest from investors over the years, a good match for its potential hadn’t materialized until now.

“This building has been vacant for a long time,” says Skye Morse, a partner and investment director at M&S Development. “A lot of people have wanted to do something with it, but it’s needed a commercially-viable vision for what it will become and the funding to make it a reality.” That vision is coming to life now with 19 mixed-income housing units and a ground floor coworking space that will look out onto Flat Street and across the Whetstone Brook to the Brattleboro Food Co-op.

M&S Development has been involved in a number of large downtown revitalization projects in the past few years including The Brooks House in Brattleboro and The Putnam Block in the heart of Bennington.

“My partners and I specialize in cobbling funding together from a lot of different sources in order to bring these projects to fruition,” says Morse, “and with our design partner, Stevens & Associates, we are able to create great modern spaces within the bones of these old buildings.” Lead architect, Jeremy Toll has fallen in love with the building through the design process. “Getting to transform a core piece of the downtown into something new and exciting is a really special opportunity,” says Toll “and going from warehouse to housing is also a unique challenge.”

That the units are designated as affordable housing was vital to securing some of the funding needed for the project to move forward. Affordable housing, in this case, is defined as housing for people making 40–80% of median family income—about $26,000–$41,000 per year in Brattleboro. This designation provided M&S access to federal funding through Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) and the Vermont Community Foundation.

Upon completion, the project will have been in the works for over 3 years—from initial talks with the owners, to environmental and structural testing, to architectural design work and state and local permitting—with a financing package that will exceed $8 million. M&S reached out to Brattleboro Savings & Loan (BS&L for the money they would need to move the project forward. BS&L’s charter allows for them to make investments in affordable housing. They worked with Bob Davis, a BS&L commercial banking officer and assistant vice president, as well as Tom Martyn and Dan Yates, BS&L’s CFO and President respectively, to work toward bringing the DeWitt Block back to its former glory.

“This is what community banking looks like,” says Dan Yates, “We want to restore the vibrancy of this building specifically and this street in general.”

A major challenge that has faced potential suitors for the building is that there were some environmental issues that needed to be addressed before any construction could begin including remediation of soil contamination under and around the building.

“The Windham Regional Commission stepped up with some much needed funding to help us deal with the environmental issues of the building and the Vermont Community Development Program provided a significant Block Grant to us through the Town of Brattleboro as well,” says Morse. In fact, the building will be a truly collaborative effort when it’s completed.

“We’ve brought together funding and expertise from across the state to help us make this project a success,” says Morse, “Through federal and state historic tax credits as well as grants and loans, it’s been a collection of agencies and organizations that have all played a part in creating much needed housing and turning an eyesore into the landmark it once was and will be again.”