Apartments on the Hill

AvalonBay’s ambitious adaptive reuse project delivered 433 apartments to a Boston suburb while preserving the site of the historic Danvers Lunatic Asylum

By Diana Mosher, Editor-in-Chief

Adaptive reuse—finding new uses for old buildings—is an exciting trend  that not only results in apartment communities with personality plus, but also pleases green enthusiasts, urban planners and local historians. Adaptive reuse helps the land conservation effort while reducing urban sprawl. Smart growth proponents like it because they think it’s more environmentally responsible to redevelop older buildings closer to urban cores.

Factories, office buildings and warehouses lend themselves to conversion. But other buildings are arguably less inviting to multifamily redevelopment than others—and much more challenging. When AvalonBay began the painstaking process of transforming The Danvers Lunatic Asylum into a desirable apartment community, the intriguing 19th century property located 20 minutes outside Boston, was neglected and had been uninhabited for years. Why was AvalonBay attracted to this project?

“If it was a good location 100 years ago, it’s going to be a great location today,” explains Scott Dale, vice president of development for the greater Boston region at AvalonBay. “One of the [appealing] aspects of Danvers, as well as the Metropolitan State Hospital we did in Lexington, Mass., is that they are located on great pieces of real estate.” Also, these very notable sites and developments fetch a lot of press and publicity. “That’s obviously a positive,” says Dale. “Not too many people in and around Danvers don’t know about the Danvers State Hospital and the development process we went through.”

With two adaptive reuse projects under its belt, does AvalonBay consider itself an expert? “The thing about adaptive reuse,” says Dale, “is that you’d be hard-pressed to find two that are the same. But I think we certainly have a unique set of qualifications internally that allows us to plan, design and construct solutions to each and every situation we may come across. We have a lot of that expertise in-house now that allows us to look at new opportunities that are adaptive reuse projects and [approach] them with a level of skill and precision that we really didn’t even have when we looked at Danvers, quite frankly, for the first time.”

Originally opened as the Danvers Lunatic Asylum in 1878, the sprawling structure sits atop Hawthorne Hill with 360-degree views of Boston’s North Shore. In the late 1900s, as the vision of mental health care evolved, this facility and many like it began to close and fall into disrepair. By the early 1990s, the facility was completely shuttered and the structure became a financial and public safety liability.

Do apartment developers seek to specialize in adaptive reuse projects or do they become involved in a more organic way? “It’s kind of a combination of both,” says Dale. “In reality, the state chose us.” The 20-year planning and disposition process started in the 1980s. It was undertaken in combination with the state agency and the local municipality where the site is located. There was a rezoning effort that took place initially and then a very public land disposition process that took place the last three or four years before AvalonBay acquired the property. “An RFP was sent out and there were public meetings to evaluate the responses to the RFP before, ultimately, a developer was selected,” adds Dale.

The highest rents

The focal point of the community is the 300,000-sq.-ft. Kirkbride building, named for Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. In the 19th century, as part of Dr. Kirkbride’s “moral treatment” philosophy, a series of architecturally magnificent insane asylums were built in the U.S. as sanctuaries for the mentally ill. “When you went up on the site initially the Gothic architecture and presence of that building on top of the hill was overpowering and ominous,” recalls Dale. The team was charged with the complicated and delicate task of transforming this institutional atmosphere to a welcoming, residential one.

“There were many competing interests involved in the process and it was our challenge to find the common ground,” adds Dale. “The historic community really wanted to save all of the Kirkbride building, which wasn’t
financially feasible, so we eventually wound up agreeing to save about one-third of it, or 100,000 sq. ft. Once we made that decision, we took the centerpiece that was the remaining portion of the historic building and used that as the design theme throughout the community.”

Today the common areas for the Avalon Danvers Community are located in the renovated Kirkbride building, as well as 61 apartments that currently fetch the highest rents. Besides proximity to amenities such as the resident lounge and health club, they are also a bit larger than elsewhere in the community. “Obviously you’re deigning apartments that fit within four walls—as well as a window pattern and ceiling height—that already exist, so you have to take what’s there and be very creative in terms of planning the new floor layouts within that [framework]. I think we did a pretty good job,” adds Dale. “But they do become somewhat unique for sure. I think people appreciated that. The unique nature of what you end up with adds value if it’s done right.”

The symmetry and steep gables of the Kirkbride building have been repeated on the architecture of the community’s new buildings. The development team also captured the traditional planning elements and building patterns that existed on the original site. “The Kirkbride building had this kind of symmetrical wing orientation to it,” says Dale. The new master plan carries forward some of that in terms of the symmetry of the new buildings and how they’re positioned on the site.”

Leasing is stabilized on the project, which won a 2009 MHN Excellence Award in the Adaptive Reuse category. The target demographic is renters-by-choice and the population is multi-generational. For this reason, AvalonBay has included a broad range of product types within the community. In addition to the loft-like residences in the Kirkbride building, there are also traditional two-story garden apartments and a four-story center corridor building. “There’s a fairly large critical mass—433 apartments—so we didn’t want it to be too targeted to a specific demographic. We wanted a broad appeal,” explains Dale. The garden apartments offer a traditional level of finish, the mid-rise units are slightly upgraded and the Kirkbride units feature further upgrades including cherry cabinetry and granite countertops.

“Again, we tried to have a fairly broad array of finishes. We thought that given the unique nature of the Kirkbride apartments—which have 11-ft. ceilings, for example, and 6 1/2–ft. windows—we should amplify all that with upgraded finishes.”

Healthcare on site, once again

The Danvers AvalonBay apartment community is just one component of the mixed-use master plan. “Obviously rental is our primary focus, so that’s the primary product we have there,” says Dale. But the community also includes 64 town homes still under construction. “We think it adds to the overall quality of the development to have a for-sale component.” AvalonBay purchased 75 acres from the state, 55 of which was dedicated to residential. Twenty acres has been permitted for commercial development.

About half that land—10 acres or so—has been sold. Northeast Health Systems has built and is now operating a 100,000-sq.-ft. outpatient ambulatory care facility. AvalonBay still has about nine acres left currently for sale. “We don’t see any retail on the site at this point,” says Dale. “We’re talking to one potential purchaser of the remaining land that is a skilled care nursing home facility. I think it would be a great use, especially if you just look at the history of the site as a hospital. It does all fit together.”

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