ORLEANS — A Boston firm is working on a plan to redevelop the former Bayside Plaza — widely known as the “Underground Mall” — a project that would add 42 rental apartments, including five affordable units, to the town’s housing stock.
The plan for the 3.65-acre site on Route 6A near the Brewster line could marginally help ease the severe housing shortage that plagues towns across Cape Cod.
On its website, developer Maple Hurst Builders describes the 42 one- and two-bedroom units as “modestly priced workforce housing.” Maple Hurst president Chris DeSisto told the Independent the inclusion of five affordable units was to satisfy the town’s policy that 10 percent of housing stock be affordable. He said he does not know how much the rents will be.
The plans show six buildings arranged around a plaza: three 2.5-story buildings along Route 6A and three 3-story buildings set farther back, all on what is now a parking lot. The old mall structure, built into a berm around the edges of the lot, will be rebuilt as sheltered parking, with additional surface parking on the site.
The plans seek to fit in with what Maple Hurst calls the “Cape Cod look” while incorporating updated ideas about energy and wastewater, including cedar-shingle siding, solar arrays, landscaping with native plants, a low-nitrogen septic system, and energy-efficient design. First-floor apartments will be accessible for seniors and people with disabilities.
“Sustainability is very important to the team, and hopefully it’s important to the community,” DeSisto told the Orleans Old King’s Highway Historic District Committee at a Sept. 1 meeting.
Vehicle access at the site will remain as it is now: via Nells Way and the traffic light at Bakers Pond Road, not directly from Route 6A.
The site, which has stood mostly vacant for several years, was acquired for $2.1 million in July 2021 by Orleans Plaza LLC, of which DeSisto is manager. The developers are funding the project privately, without seeking government subsidies, he said.
The Orleans committee of the Old King’s Highway Historic District Commission quashed a previous plan to develop the site for an industrial supplies vendor.
The Old King’s Highway committee initially balked at the new housing plan but approved it this month by a 2-1 vote. The committee is the town-level unit of the commission, which has authority over a region stretching from Sandwich to Orleans and often blocks changes that do not meet its standards for aesthetics. DeSisto says the plan must still be approved by the Orleans Planning Board and the Cape Cod Commission. He said the Cape Cod Commission has indicated it is seeking only a limited review of the plan, focusing on septic and drainage, not on traffic. Both boards are “bullish on housing for the site,” he said.
According to the most recent data available, a 2017 community housing study by the Orleans Affordable Housing Committee, Orleans has about 5,300 housing units of which about 60 percent are occupied year-round. At the time the study was done, the committee identified rental housing as the town’s top need. It found the average income of renters in Orleans was just $19,858 per year, but that a household income of $60,000 would be needed to pay the lowest available market rent in town. The coronavirus pandemic has since exacerbated that disparity.
“In an ideal world, it would be nice to see a lot more than 42 units put on that site,” said Jay Coburn, CEO of the Community Development Partnership. “While we have significant demand for affordable housing, we also have demand for traditional housing, period.”
Under guidelines that are part of the 1969 Mass. law known as Chapter 40B, 10 percent of a town’s housing should be “affordable,” that is, priced to allow a family earning under 80 percent of the area median income (AMI) to live there. By that standard, Orleans is in relatively good shape among towns on Cape Cod, with about 9 percent of its housing classified as affordable.
But that does not come close to meeting the need. Nearly half of Orleans residents earn less than 80 percent of AMI. In the towns of the Outer Cape, there is an even wider gap between what housing costs and what residents earn.
Other housing developments are in varying stages of progress in Orleans, including at the former Cape Cod Five Operations Center, the former Masonic Lodge, and the Governor Prence Motel.
To date, Maple Hurst’s construction projects on the Cape have been limited to single-family homes in Eastham and Wellfleet. Its larger scale projects have all been in the Boston area, including 20-unit buildings in Allston and Jamaica Plain.