White River Junction could get badly needed affordable housing, if a developer can continue his streak of successful projects for the downtown.
Matt Bucy is proposing to convert the former American Legion into office space and small rental units. Bucy takes an unconventional approach to downtown development, but so far, it’s making him popular in a town that’s trying to re-invent itself as an arts mecca.
Bucy doesn’t usually wear a coat and tie, like most real estate developers do. In the winter he favors a woolen hat shaped just like head of Bert, the curmudgeonly Sesame Street character. On a raw, icy afternoon he pulled the comical headgear over his ears as he checked on the chilly vacant Legion Hall he now owns.
It’s only a few blocks away from two other properties he’s redeveloped in his trademark modernist way. The Dreamland and Tip Top Buildings house a popular café, offices, art studios, wellness services, and retail outlets for crafts and antiques. Bucy, an art director for films, said he fell into development to make a space for his own creative output, not to build a monopoly-like empire.
“No, I’m an accidental developer," he says. "I ended up doing this just because I wanted a space to work in and one thing led to another. I ended up buying a building. I didn’t know anything about development [and] I just plodded along and did it as cheaply and directly toward my goal — which is to create creative space — as possible.”
Now he wants to provide what he says is affordable living space for creative young people trying to move into an area where rentals are scarce and often expensive.
“I’ve thought for a long time that White River Junction has needed more apartments, especially small affordable apartments, so that’s the track we are pursuing for the upstairs,” Bucy said.
And he means small — some could be micro-apartments for single occupants renting for about $700 a month. Based on dwellings he admires in Japan, some could be as small as 9-by-25 feet, with sleeping lofts and compact kitchens. A few leases might be short-term. Bucy says they will be well-designed and stylish, but simple.
If the designs follow Bucy's preliminary plans, this hard scrabble Vermont town along a railroad line could follow the example of bigger cities like Tokyo and San Francisco, where miniscule living spaces are already finding budget-minded tenants who embrace minimalism (and maybe store a lot of stuff in their parents' garages).
On street level, as required by Hartford’s zoning plan, there would be commercial space, and tenants could possibly share some common areas, and maybe even receptionists.
It’s all part of Bucy’s aim to bring to South Main Street the kind of revitalization he’s already sparked farther north.
“This building is big enough and can have a big enough impact to bring the whole town a little further down South Main Street. People tend to look down here and not come here because it looks a little scary, I think,” he said, dodging icicles hanging from the roof.
Right now, the area does look a little down-and-out. In fact, Bucy himself says he was once accosted unfairly by an overzealous police officer assuming he was a vagrant. But he says in order to effect positive change in gritty places like White River Junction, you have to set forth a positive vision, rather than being scared off by negative attitudes.
That can-do spirit allies him to another up and coming town landmark, the Center for Cartoon Studies. Co-founder and President Michelle Ollie said these apartments will help the school to grow, because students need to have affordable places to live near where they spend long hours working on projects.
“More importantly, it creates that critical mass of our community and our campus [that] when we have that many students who are walking in that downtown core, it supports the local economy by bringing in that consistent business,” Ollie said.
Town planners and residents evidently agree. There has been little public opposition to Bucy’s revitalization projects, although some apartment seekers question the $700 monthly price tag for a small studio space. But if some parking issues can be solved, Bucy says the newest address on South Main Street is likely to be open for business and occupancy by next fall.
This story was updated on Wednesday, Jan. 15 at 10:30 a.m.