GLOUCESTER, Mass. — Seven years on the drawing board, a 10-unit residential project on the Annisquam River and the Cape Ann Forge property is now in the works — though it’s no longer being called The Anchorworks, developer Jay McNiff says.

The project, designed for up to 10 market-rate duplex units in five two-story buildings, has been moved onto a fast track this week, with heavy equipment crews carrying out excavation work and construction of the development’s roadway around the site at the end of Riverside Avenue.

McNiff said Thursday that he’s hoping to have the first unit or units built and ready to market by spring.
“It could be sooner than that,” he said, “but I want to have one (of the duplexes) built — something tangible, that people can touch before taking the next steps.”

The residential project is being built on the same 5 1/2-acre property that includes the Cape Ann Forge Industrial Park, which houses 14 businesses on land overlooking the Annisquam at the end of Whittemore Street.

The houses will be constructed on a crescent-shaped 3.2 acres that winds around the commercial property and slopes down to the tidal river, just north of the MBTA’s century-old commuter rail drawbridge.

Each of the five lots would feature a two-story house over an approximately 4,000-square-foot footprint, with each unit within the buildings measuring about 2,400 square feet of living space. Each unit would include an entryway from the roadway now under construction, with frontage pegged at 23 feet above sea — or river — level. The houses would then slope to a basement entry at 14 feet above the river, with a connecting riverfront walkway behind the houses as well.

McNiff — whose McNiff Company has also developed the Old Nugent Farm condominium complex in East Gloucester and the mixed-use Station Place commercial and residential adjacent to the commuter rail station on Railroad Avenue — had initially submitted permit applications in 2007 for the forge riverfront site.

Those plans called for building five condo units in two buildings. But, after keeping the plans on a back burner amid the recession, he moved the project forward again in 2012, this seeking the five lots that can hold two duplex units each.

McNiff said Thursday there are still some variables: While the first building constructed will be a duplex, there is an option for building one or more of the two-story houses as a single-family home, through that would require a return to city permitting boards.

“This gives us a lot of flexibility as we go forward,” he said during a Thursday visit to the site, where bulldozers carved out the looping roadway that will front the houses.

Plans call for the two-way roadway off the end of Riverside to run for 450 feet at 20 feet wide, with sidewalks and granite curbing, said McNiff — who estimates the project will cost close to $1 million before construction of any of the houses. McNiff said he is also talking with city officials about simply having homebuyers using addresses on a “Riverside Avenue Extension” — even if it is a private roadway. That’s also behind the idea of backing off the project’s prior Anchorworks name, but those talks are still in the works, he said.

Meanwhile, the final piece to the development puzzle fell into place earlier this week, when McNiff and city officials signed off on an easement that allows the city to maintain underground utilities beneath the little strip of pavement that connects the end of Riverside Avenue to Whittemore Street, yet rests under the forge’s private property.

The Cape Ann Forge property, used as an industrial site since the early 1800s, had fallen dormant and was purchased by Jay’s father, John McNiff, and his company in 1986.
After carrying out extensive environmental cleanup on the site, the elder McNiff secured city approval for building 66 residential units across the entire site. But that project was derailed by the real estate crash of 1989, according to the company’s website. The existing industrial complex was then developed and opened in 1997, records show.

The current project’s advancement comes at time when another residential project is moving forward as well. Excavation and some foundation building is now underway on the site of the controversial Brierneck project, a 12-unit development at Thatcher Road and Withman Street that gained its approvals through the state’s controversial Chapter 40B regulations because it three of the units are as recognized affordable housings. The permitting for McNiff’s market-rate project is through the city.

“It’s a good time,” McNiff said. “The market is better, and it seems to have stabilized.”

The new construction also comes after a recent infusion of new businesses into the Cape Ann Forge property’s commercial buildings. The Cape Ann Brewing Company last year expanded into the forge facilities to consolidate all of its contract brewing, packaging and shipping operations in the city. Dr. Richard Sagall’s NeedyMeds, the Gloucester-based nonprofit offering pharmaceutical assistance through a variety of programs, moved into one of the forge’s commercial buildings.

“We’re excited about this,” McNiff said of the new residential development, “but we’re excited about all of this — about the brewing company, about NeedyMeds, about all that’s happening here.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the property finally being anchored, so to speak,” he said. “It’s exciting to see all of this finally getting done.”

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