The housing development at the old Colony Mill Marketplace in Keene is “finally off the ground,” according to a project official.
Benjamin Kelley is overseeing construction as a partner with Brady Sullivan Keene Properties, the local arm of the Manchester firm that’s redeveloping the Colony Mill.
The main 112,000-square-foot building on West Street, nestled between Island Street and Gilbo Avenue, will house the apartments, but the property also encompasses the Elm City Brewing Co. and Keene Casino spaces and another standalone building that was formerly a candy shop. Kelley said a regional bank is in talks with the company to potentially move into that space, though he declined to release the bank’s name.
When it’s finished, the mill will house 89 apartments of varying sizes and layouts, but most will clock in at around 900 square feet. The majority of the units will have two bedrooms — reflecting what Kelley said is a growing trend toward living spaces with a smaller footprint — but there will also be some one-bedroom apartments and a handful of three-bedroom units.
Interior demolition of the marketplace was completed during the winter months, Kelley said, and construction crews are now building the frame of each unit.
Kelley expects the mill to attract two types of residents: young professionals and empty-nesters, referring to those who want to downsize after their children leave the house. He declined to specify the price range of the units and said the company will turn its attention to that after construction is finished.
Along with the adjacent Elm City Brewing Co., the mill apartments will offer easy access to eateries and entertainment on Main Street, he said, drawing people from surrounding towns who want to live a bit closer to downtown Keene amenities.
“We see a major under-supply of quality housing close to downtown,” he said. “Just by nature of the college being where it is on Main Street, a lot of the housing stock is student housing — not designated as such, but just naturally goes that way.”
He added that the mill apartments won’t compete with off-campus student housing, which he said targets shorter stays. The Colony Mill units will be high-quality living spaces intended for long-term use, Kelley said, with solid plywood box cabinets and granite countertops.
“We’re not looking for turnover,” he said. “... We don’t want it to be defined as luxury; we just want it to be a place for someone to call home for a while.”
He said there will be ample parking for prospective residents in the lot shared with Elm City Brewing.
Housing with history
Pointing to the mill’s history in the city, Kelley said the building itself is a draw, with scenic views, high ceilings and unique layouts. Some of the decor in common spaces will incorporate relics of the mill’s past, including pulleys and other pieces.
“Everyone seems to have a tie to the mill in some fashion,” Kelley said. “I think that, when people see what we’ve done with it and breathed new life into it, it’ll be an excitement.”
The mill was first built in the mid-1700s, when Josiah Colony was its manager. His son, Horatio Colony, became the first mayor of Keene when it was chartered as a city in 1889.
A couple of fires in the 1800s resulted in reconstruction of the mill buildings. During World War II, the Faulkner and Colony mill company reached its peak, employing more than 500 people and producing more than 1.4 million yards of cloth for the Allied countries, used for blankets, uniforms and explosive devices.
When the market for cloth in the U.S. declined in 1953, the mill went out of business.
It sat untouched until Emile J. Legere of Spofford bought it, redeveloped the mill and reopened it in 1983 as the Colony Mill Marketplace, along with The Center at Keene. The marketplace was home to a variety of eateries and retailers over the years.
Legere sold the property to Mayo Seven LLC in 2003 for $8.5 million, according to city records. In the 10 years that followed, the marketplace saw a steady decline in business. In 2014, Brady Sullivan purchased the mill and The Center at Keene, now called The Center at Colony Mill, from the Mayo Group for $4.5 million.
Brady Sullivan’s original plan was to let the mill remain a commercial building, Kelley said, and there appeared to be tenants interested in moving in. But by mid-2016, he said, it became clear that the spot was no longer sustainable as a marketplace.
The company has renovated several mills into housing developments in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
In December 2016, the Keene Zoning Board of Adjustment approved a variance allowing the mill to be used for residences. Most of the marketplace tenants moved out during the first few months of last year — many to The Center at Colony Mill or elsewhere in downtown Keene.
Because the mill is within walking distance of Main Street, Kelley said he believes it has the potential to become an extension of the downtown atmosphere.
“We think it’s a really viable link between the two,” he said, referring to the mill and Main Street. “... It’s really going to be this kind of standalone little community, and I think Keene will respond to that.”
Kelley anticipates construction will take about eight or nine months, and he hopes to be well into the leasing process in a year. About 70 units have frames built so far, he said, and once that piece is complete, crews will begin work on plumbing, electrical and fire safety installation, the permits for which are pending approval from the city.
“It’s going to be a busy summer, in a good way,” Kelley said.