July 4, 2011 | last updated March 25, 2012 11:54 am

Fitchburg Regroups After Main Street Fire | Mayor and city officials hopeful that student housing can help bring people downtown

Photo/Brandon Butler
Photo/Brandon Butler
A fire devastated the Johnsonia Building in downtown Fitchburg, drawing attention to efforts to bring more housing to Main Street.

For more than a century, one structure has towered over downtown Fitchburg's Main Street as its crown jewel.

The Johnsonia Building, constructed in 1898, is an Italian-Renaissance inspired five-story Indiana sandstone behemoth. In the early days, it served as a hotel, with legend having it that Teddy Roosevelt visited the building soon after its completion.

If the Johnsonia has done anything for downtown Fitchburg, it has proved that there is a market for up-scale rental housing in this city, especially since its recent renovation in the past few years, local officials said.

Downtown Developments

The building's 45-plus apartment and condominium units were almost all full when tragedy struck in mid-June.

A six-alarm fire engulfed the top two floors of the building, gutting them and leaving massive water and smoke damage throughout the structure.

The question in the wake of the blaze for city officials is how to attract a developer to tap into what is now an underserved residential market in the downtown.

Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong has some ideas — they involve students.

Just a few weeks after the fire it is unclear if or when the Johnsonia building will be habitable again. Owner Clark Straight has declined to discuss the situation publicly.

But the success of the Johnsonia during the past few years has spurred other development in downtown.

It's one of the reasons that the Twin Cities Community Development Corp. and executive director Marc Dohan combined $11 million worth of public and private funds two years ago to rehabilitate 470 Main St., which is adjacent to the Johnsonia Building. That building is almost fully occupied.

"For us, (the Johnsonia) was the model that downtown housing could be successful," Dohan said.

Even before the fire, city officials said there was an underserved residential market downtown.

Fitchburg State University is located just north of the city's Main Street and is bursting at the seams for student housing, according to Ryan McNutt, Wong's chief of staff. The school has transitioned in recent years from one in which most of the students commute to campus to one that has more and more students living in Fitchburg. Because of that, students are spilling into housing units in surrounding neighborhoods.

At least one local real estate agent agrees and said student housing is a good niche to be in.

"The beauty of student housing is that, to a large extent, it's recession proof," said Rick Healey, owner of Foster-Healey Real Estate in Fitchburg and Leominster. "Every year there's a new class of freshman coming into the city."

Fitchburg officials are taking deliberate steps to help encourage the proliferation of student housing. Officials believe the key to redevelopment efforts is getting a couple of projects done successfully, then creating a snowball effect.

To help support the process, the city council recently created a student housing overlay district, which makes it easier for a developer to obtain permits to construct residential options aimed at students.

Instead of developers having to go to the local zoning board of appeals for a variance to construct student lodging, developers only need approval from the local planning board.

The city council's passage of the overlay district in April has already elicited interest from developers, McNutt said, with two projects specifically addressing student housing. There are some bumps in the road, however.

For example, plans were submitted to redevelop the former Montachusett Opportunity Council building at 75 Day St. into student housing. The building is located near the Fitchburg State campus, but the local planning board recently rejected the proposal because developers could not promise to have on-site staffing for the students, as the overlay district requires.

Healey, the local real estate agent, said Fitchburg has some amenities that make it attractive for development. There is an underused train station in the downtown, a new coffee shop and an upscale martini bar.

Still, deflated prices of homes and condominiums, plus an ongoing foreclosure crisis continue to plague the North County's real estate market. The depressed prices of condominiums make financing development especially difficult, Healey said.

"The cost of new construction or renovation is high compared to the market value of existing housing," Healey said. "I think there's no question there is a market for downtown housing, the only issue is at what price point?"

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