Case Study

Courthouse Lofts in Worcester, MA

7 min read

A Courthouse is Transformed Into Affordable Homes

Not many 19th century courthouses get turned into 118 units of multifamily rental housing. In fact, it is so rare that the National Park Service (NPS) made a highly unusual two-site visit to the old courthouse in Worcester, MA, to make sure the historic adaptive reuse project was a good idea. Just as unusual is a multifamily project that includes a museum, dedicated to a 19th century Worcester resident who was said to be the fastest man alive on a bicycle in his day.

Nearly everything about the Courthouse Lofts project is out of the ordinary. Developer Trinity Financial and architect The Architectural Team (TAT) faced a daunting challenge to weave four separate buildings built between the 1840s and the 1950s into one coherent whole.

And the NPS had a long list of things they wanted retained from the courthouse complex. For starters, one courtroom in each of the four buildings had to be preserved, including wall and ceiling finishes and volume of space.

That means one tenant at The Courthouse Lofts has a spacious apartment that used to be a courtroom in the original 1840s building, while all the tenants will be enjoying “courthouse” common areas, such as a two-floor space that is now a resident lounge and is “spectacular,” TAT Senior Project Manager Phil Renzi says. Other amenities include a pet grooming spa, a makerspace for creative work and a game room.

That one tenant has an intact judge’s bench in the main living area, a stenographer’s area and a couple of raised areas where juries were seated (there were no jury boxes). The bathroom and bedroom are tucked into the later 1898 building, and the kitchen is a standalone island within the courtroom space.

One courtroom in the 1898 building was also made into a residential unit with a lofted design.

“We had a handful of very large residential units as a result of NPS’ requirements,” Renzi says. And in all, there was no “cookie cutter” approach as most of the units were varied “because of the uniqueness of the building.”

“We designed 115 individual apartments,” says Renzi, with only three that were identical. Other complexities to be negotiated included an asymmetrical eight-foot-wide corridor in one of the buildings.

Courthouse Lofts is an inclusive development, in that residents from all levels of income are not segregated. “The community is designed to promote seamless integration and foster interaction among residents,” says Renzi, who noted mixed-income projects like that “are very much in Trinity’s wheelhouse.”

Keeping the Doors
And there were a couple of sets of old doors the National Park Service wanted retained. Trouble was, they didn’t pass code for the Worcester Fire Department. They were too weighty to be used as fire doors. So, according to Renzi, they were left open, and a second pair of fire exit-friendly doors were installed inside of them.

The many sets of staircases posed an accessibility problem, so in one case a lift had to be put in. “That was a challenge,” Renzi says.

“This was a once in a lifetime project,” says Renzi. “We were just thrilled. Adaptive reuse is a big part of our portfolio.”

Total development cost of the 203,000 square foot space was $70 million, according to Michael Lozano, vice president of development at Trinity Financial, Boston.

Lozano says the project got its start when the City of Worcester put out a Request for Interest in redeveloping the old courthouse. While the city was originally interested in market-rate units, Trinity came back with a proposal for a mixed-income project “to serve a broad cross section of need,” he says.

“The city agreed with our vision,” notes Lozano.

The end result for the complex, vacant since 2007 (a new courthouse has been constructed up the street), is 23 studios, 54 one-bedroom apartments, 32 two-bedroom units and nine three-bedroom apartments. Plus, one museum. Lozano says the development is 100 percent leased up.

Renzi explains the city wanted to have some public space at the development. The 1,700-square-foot museum, just opened, honors Marshall “Major” Taylor, a champion bicyclist in the 19th century, said to be the first black bicycle champion in the country. The opening of the museum was attended by Taylor’s great granddaughter and great-great grandson and includes memorabilia of the longtime Worcester resident known as “the Worcester Whirlwind.”

Much of the financing came through MassHousing, which provided Trinity a $12.2 million tax-exempt permanent loan, $19.1 million in bridge loan financing and $4.5 million in funding from the agency’s Workforce Housing Initiative. The MassHousing Investment Corp. was the buyer for the various tax credits involved.

MassHousing executive director Chrystal Kornegay calls the project “an exciting step in downtown Worcester’s renaissance. Trinity Financial had a compelling vision for this property, transforming a historic structure into new homes for working families.”

A Wide Range of Incomes
She lauds the development as providing apartments “for households across a wide range of incomes.”

MassHousing says the development is a key component to the revival of Worcester’s Lincoln Square section. “The Worcester Courthouse is adjacent to the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester Memorial Auditorium and the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Services. The property also has access to public bus service and is less than a mile from the MBTA Commuter Rail at Union Station,” the agency says.

According to Trinity Financial’s website, the income mix is 50 percent market rate (with some unrestricted and some limited to 120 percent of area median income (AMI) for workforce housing) and 50 percent affordable to those at or below 60 percent of AMI.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) was also a major source of finance. DHCD says it committed State and Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits, which generated $20.9 million in equity financing. Other financing sources included $10.7 million in Federal Historic Tax Credit equity, $2.9 million in State Historic Tax Credit equity, $6 million in direct support from DHCD and a $1.7 million deferred developer fee.

Renzi says the project called for “a thoughtful, respectful, and comprehensive vision.”

In addition to maintaining the courtrooms mandated by NPS, TAT needed to restore “main entry spaces, circulation corridors, stairs, ceilings, flooring, stained glass and spatial volumes.”

Renovations over the 100 years between the first and fourth buildings left many internal spaces with poor sunlight. “To bring natural light back into the core of the building, as necessary to maximize residential units, the design team created two interior courtyards by opening up previous floor infills. When the 1955 annex addition was constructed, it infilled a third location between the 1878 and 1898 additions. This floor infill was also removed, opening the original 19th century granite facades up to the sky after being hidden for 70 years, and pouring natural light into the ‘knuckle’ of the building,” the firm says.

“One major challenge for the design team was converting the very complicated circulation path of a courthouse into meaningful and useful residential circulation while meeting present day code requirements. Some of the original 32 stairs were maintained and restored, while others were demolished and infilled to create usable square footage. Similarly, careful consideration was necessary in highly ornate retained historic spaces while installing updated mechanical and electrical systems and introducing a sprinkler system to the building for the first time in its history.”

The general contractor for the project was Tocci Building Corp. and the management agent is Trinity Management. Construction on the complicated project took two years.

Mark Fogarty has covered housing and mortgages for more than 30 years. A former editor at National Mortgage News, he has written extensively about tax credits.