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How to Bring Back Southbridge

A 21-year-old developer is rescuing his hometown---one building at a time.

Southbridge, Mass., is one of dozens of New England mill towns that have fallen on hard times. These places were once prosperous, with traditional development built around walkable downtowns and streetcars. But today, the factories have closed and the downtowns are empty, thanks to economic collapse, antiquated zoning laws, and an automobile-centric transportation policy.

In many ways, Southbridge is typical of these towns. Its American Optical Company was once the largest manufacturer of eyeglasses in the world; now, the town’s structures are falling apart and few businesses are left. But in Southbridge, whose population numbers about 16,000, one native son is working to revive his hometown one building at a time.

A boyish, bespectacled 21-year-old, Hunter Foote entered the world of real-estate development as soon as he graduated college at the age of 17. Foote studied business at UMass-Amherst and found he was different from his classmates, who typically looked at a business career as a ticket to a lavish lifestyle. “I looked at business as creating value,” he says. “By creating value, the business is rewarded with profit. Profit is the method, not the goal.”

That outlook informs his work today. While many city governments seek huge government or corporate investments to come to their splashy rescue, Foote is an incremental entrepreneur. His company, Bellus Real Estate, works by buying distressed properties and renovating them. This style of small-scale development has low barriers to entry, is less disruptive to neighborhoods, and can produce a decent profit margin without ultra-luxury apartments or chain restaurants.

It also puts into practice many of the ideals of New Urbanism, a movement that seeks to recover the traditional patterns of urban development that prevailed before World War II. This time-tested model is characterized by walkable communities and buildings with storefronts and street-level windows and doors. The contrast is especially striking with the nearly windowless concrete bunkers and shopping malls built in the middle of the last century.

Since starting in 2012—he had to delay closing on his first property until he turned 18—Foote has built up a portfolio of 60 properties. “What’s really remarkable is that he did this with no money,” says Ted Carman, a developer and consultant with Boston-based Concord Square Planning and Development.

When Foote started out, banks basically wouldn’t talk to him. They didn’t like lending money for real estate in an area like Southbridge, and they certainly didn’t like lending money to a 17-year-old. As a result, he had to raise money from other sources, such as his family and private investors. He initially asked 117 contacts before he found one willing to take the risk.

Foote then used historic-preservation grants and tax credits to help him get started, and as he’s built up a track record he’s been able to get money from local banks. Now he’s looking into crowdfunding for real estate, which was legalized recently, and he’s taken advantage of tax credits and grants to install solar arrays on the roofs of some of his buildings. “It doesn’t take a lot of money, it takes creativity,” Foote says. “We kept piggy-backing on our previous projects.”

His work benefits the whole town. Foote says there had been dozens of crimes, including assaults and even a murder, at three of the buildings he chose to renovate. In just those three buildings, his company has added $2.2 million in value, he says, worth about $40,000 in annual tax revenue to the town. Outside of downtown, the properties he purchased were all delinquent in taxes or water bills. He also hires local contractors to handle the renovations. “Interest rates are low, property values are low,” he says. “We saw an opportunity to buy cheap properties with cheap money and hire cheap people to renovate them.”

In keeping with New Urbanism, Foote also aims to reduce Southbridge’s reliance on automobiles. “It really appeals to have a walkable downtown,” he told a fall meeting of the New England chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU-NE). “It reduces the need for anyone to have a car.”

Walkable development is much healthier for a city than the auto-oriented alternatives, according to Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, an organization that advocates traditional development. Marohn wrote for TAC last year that “on a per-foot or per-acre basis, [traditional development] is vastly more productive financially than anything being built in an auto-orientation.”

Marohn compares a city to an ecosystem. “Any time you look at a natural system, it benefits from small iterations,” he says. “You get systems that are far more optimized than if you take big leaps all at once. Traditional development is to suburban development as the Amazon rain forest is to a corn field.”

Many places in New England have still not learned that lesson, and continue to chase big-dollar projects. After Massachusetts passed a law legalizing casinos a few years ago, an $800 million gambling project was planned on 15 acres in Springfield, while a $1.7 billion project was planned for Everett’s waterfront. Even Boston isn’t immune to pie-in-the-sky projects, as its aborted attempt to host the 2024 Summer Olympics revealed.

Not only do casino projects and heavily subsidized corporate chases fail to rescue declining cities, but they can stoke backlash against development in general.  The result is that the well-financed and well-connected developers still get to do their large projects, but the less influential developers get stiffed.

Foote has faced his own challenges in Southbridge, such as preservationists who try to insist that he get “Certificates of Historical Accuracy” for his renovations, a process that can significantly increase costs. The building inspectors he’s worked with, on the other hand, would prefer he burn the buildings down. Marohn says inspectors around the country need to understand how to apply building codes to renovated buildings instead of expecting them to conform to new codes.

Neighbors have also been an issue. When Foote was renovating one downtown building for apartments, some people wanted him to make the apartments too big for transients but too small for families. The redevelopment of a former Raytheon site in the Boston suburb of Sudbury faced a similarly motivated challenge, as town officials demanded that most units built on the 50-acre property be restricted to people 55 and up to avoid increasing the school-age population.

One of the aims of CNU-NE is to encourage more people to become developers and build toward New Urbanism’s vision rather than succumbing to these pressures. “We need to chart a vision of development that speaks to … democratizing control of change in cities by reducing the amount of capital or power you have to have to make an individual or small group contribution,” say Seth Zeren, a member of CNU-NE’s board of directors and an urban-planner-turned-developer himself. “Essentially, it’s an argument for the petit bourgeois—small landlords, shopkeepers, etc. The bigger the buildings get, the fewer capitalists you’ll have; the bigger the experiments you make, the greater the returns at the top. There are plenty of examples from older urban contexts that you can have dynamic, dense, and economically prosperous cities with a majority of the city built of fine-grained urban buildings.”

Too many cities have become trapped by once-bitten, twice-shy neighbors and a failed philosophy of auto-centric urbanism. Small developers, whether real-estate entrepreneurs like Foote or Zeren’s petit bourgeois looking to get the most value from their assets, can be that needed force for local renewal.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston who writes about urbanism and history. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.