Case Study

The Briscoe School in Beverly, MA

6 min read

Former Students May Soon Live in Massachusetts School Housing

Since the Briscoe School in Beverly, MA was a functioning educational facility as recently as 2018, it is likely that at least some of the seniors soon to be living in its adaptive reuse as housing will have memories of learning the Three Rs there (reading, wRiting and aRithmetic).

The Briscoe School’s “reimagining” into the Beverly Village for Living and the Arts is distinctive in several ways. Many school conversions covered by Tax Credit Advisor have required the construction of another building (in addition to the school renovation) to make the project pencil out, causing additional wrinkles in being able to access Historic Tax Credits from the National Park Service or the state preservation office. But not Briscoe.

“This building was big enough to get to a deal size that works within the Massachusetts affordable housing delivery system,” says Josh Cohen, president of development at developer Beacon Communities. (Harborlight Homes is the co-developer.)

The mixed-use development, centered around affordable housing for seniors, is under construction now. When it’s completed in the fall of 2024, it will have more than 90 units. “It was a high school at one time, so it’s a pretty big facility,” says Cohen. The school also has been a middle and junior high school in the hundred years it has existed since 1923.

“It’s three stories and has a lower level where the gym was, which will become the amenity space for the residents,” says Jaissa Feliz, Beacon’s development director for the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. The total size is roughly 140,000 square feet.

Beverly Village, in the Gloucester Crossing neighborhood of the city, is also distinctive in that it is the first affordable housing development in Massachusetts to be funded under the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), part of a COVID relief package.

“ARPA funded a number of Department of Housing and Urban Development housing programs, and a lot of money got sent to the states that had discretion about how to use the money,” says Cohen.

The project had a complicated capital stack, adds Cohen, involving an alphabet soup of funder abbreviations.

“We’ve got Low Income Housing Tax Credits, we’ve got Historic Tax Credits, we’ve got ARPA in this one, and the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities’ Affordable Housing Trust Funds, and local HOME, AHT and community preservation funds,” says Feliz. The total development cost is about $55 million.

State and Federal LIHTCs
Federal LIHTCs came to $26.1 million while state housing credits contributed another $13.1 million.

“MassHousing is providing tax-exempt bond debt financing as well,” Feliz says.

MassHousing is financing a total of $26 million, including a $7.5 million permanent loan and $18.54 million in bridge financing.

“The construction lender is Santander, the tax credit investor/syndicator is Hudson Housing Capital, the general contractor is Keith Construction, the architect is SV Design and the management agent is Beacon Residential Management,” MassHousing says.

“Former classrooms will be turned into 85 units of affordable housing for low-income seniors, with on-site supportive services. Former locker rooms will become six live/work studios with an artist occupancy preference. The former auditorium will be preserved for future use as a community performing arts space, maintaining the building’s historic connection to its community. The former gymnasium will house resident amenities, including a community room, computer learning center, wellness and fitness spaces, library and reading room, and workshop. Outdoor amenity spaces will include a terrace and patio,” according to information provided by Thomas Farmer, MassHousing’s communications specialist.

Unit size breakout is 17 studios and 74 one-bedroom units. Maximum area median incomes are 30 percent for 17 units, 60 percent for 58 units and six of the units (the artist studios) are market rate.

MassHousing chief executive Chrystal Kornegay praised the project as “an incredibly unique combination of rental homes for residents with a range of incomes, live and workspaces for artists, and the preservation of the historic Briscoe School theater that will continue as a performance venue.”

Andrew DeFranza, executive director of Harborlight Homes, knows the school well. One of his children attended it.

“Traditionally, Gloucester Crossing is a working-class neighborhood,” says DeFranza. “A lot of multifamily. A lot of triple-deckers and duplexes. It was most recently a middle school, up to sixth grade. My oldest child was in the last sixth-grade class in that school when it closed. It’s been serving the community for about one hundred years and is well thought of. The community’s extremely proud of it.”

The lottery for the yet-to-be-completed housing hasn’t taken place yet, so DeFranza doesn’t know if there will be any returnees among the residents. “But the expectation is that’s very likely,” he says. “The appetite and interest in that building is strong. Almost all the folks in Beverly went there themselves or had family that went there.”

Local Connections
According to DeFranza, the current Department of Public Works director has a multi-generational connection to the school. “His grandfather was the principal of the school,” he says. “There are a lot of interesting linkages like that.”

DeFranza says the city was concerned with preserving the school, especially the theater inside it.

“We knew we were going to have to keep the building,” he says. “Economically it would have made more sense to take it down, but we knew it was important to the community to keep it up.”

The “fairly ornate” theater holds about 1,000 people, with a balcony as a second level. “It was viewed as a really strong community asset,” says DeFranza. “We’re trying to find a way to keep it in use.”

DeFranza says the designer of the theater was said to be inspired by the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s space.

After the renovation, the 500 seats on the first level of the theater will be available for use, says Feliz.

“It was a school theater, but its features are pretty transferable, so we expect it will be a community theater when it’s done,” DeFranza says.

He says one of the notable stories about the school is that it was a high school for a time. Until it was replaced by the current high school. In an example of educational efficiency, the last high school students at Briscoe packed up their books and carried them about a mile to begin residency in the new high school.

Another story that gets told is how in its old age, the Briscoe School became a movie star.

In the years it was vacant leading up to the plans for the redevelopment, the school was used to shoot some scenes in the Academy Award-winning 2021 film CODA. The acronym stands for Child of Deaf Adults and centers on Ruby, the only hearing child in a family living in Gloucester, MA.

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.