MANSFIELD — He has suffered one setback after another, but Mansfield businessman Joseph Mulkern says he’s not giving up.
Mulkern, owner of Mulkern Mechanical, wants to convert the century-old Lowney Chocolate Factory, just a short walk from the Mansfield commuter rail station, into loft apartments, but the plan stalled again recently after Town Meeting failed to draw enough voters to enact a necessary zoning change.
Mulkern, who first approached the town last winter, says he’ll just have to try again at April’s annual Town Meeting.
“There was a lot of misinformation going around at first about lost jobs,” Mulkern said of early opposition to his project, contending that fears the additional housing would burden local schools with more children were unfounded.
“It’s not designed for families,” he said. “It’s ideal for young professionals and empty-nesters.”
Mulkern also denied warnings the town would be losing a prime industrial site, arguing the old factory is not suited to modern industry.
Mulkern has a purchase-and-sale agreement for the 14-acre property, valued by the town at $2.7 million. His plan calls for stripping away several later additions to the structure built by bonbon magnate Walter Lowney in 1903, and converting the original six-story factory into 109 one- and two-bedroom apartments with soaring ceilings and exposed brick walls.
The Oakland Street building has been empty since its owner, Archer Daniels Midland, moved its cocoa processing operation to Pennsylvania in 2011.
Mulkern has partnered for the project with WinnDevelopment, a Boston-based company known for its factory conversions, including the award-winning Baker Chocolate factory project in Dorchester.
“I live in Mansfield, and I thought I’ll just take the building and make it beautiful and everyone will be happy, but it hasn’t worked out that way,” said Mulkern.
The proposal for the landmark factory has drawn praise from preservationists, who say they would be happy to see the historic building saved. But detractors warn the project would nip away at the town’s meager supply of industrial land and increase demand on municipal services.
Mulkern first approached the town in February, but wasn’t allowed to begin local permitting because of a zoning issue. The Lowney factory is in Mansfield’s industrial zone, which doesn’t allow for residential development.
Mulkern submitted a proposed zoning adjustment for last spring’s annual Town Meeting, but withdrew it prior to a vote because the Planning Board was going to recommend against it, due to the concern over loss of industrial land.
“Since then, I walked Planning Board members through the property and explained what I was going to do,” Mulkern said. Part of his plan calls for leaving about half the site available for commercial and industrial use. By fall, he had won over a majority, so he submitted his zoning adjustment for a Special Town Meeting last month. Unfortunately for Mulkern, not enough voters turned out for a quorum.
Mulkern said he worries that state and federal tax credits he’s counting on to help pay for the preservation project won’t be available by the time he’s ready to move forward. “The project is about a year behind what we anticipated,” he said. “We’re going to have to reapply for the historic tax credits, and we’re hoping that they don’t dry up.”
Kevin McNatt, president of the Mansfield Historical Society, said he hopes voters will ultimately approve the zoning change.
“The building is just standing empty,” McNatt said. “If the land remains industrial use and someone else comes in, I fear they would raze the building, since it’s not really conducive to modern manufacturing. I’d hate to see a historic building bite the dust.”
Planning Board chairman Thomas French agreed.
“A couple of board members are opposed to taking land that is industrial and making it residential, but I think most members feel the factory is not really viable for an industrial or commercial use,” he said. “Residential is the only way to preserve it.”
But Ralph Penney, also on the Planning Board, has been lobbying against the housing proposal. “To me, industrial properties represent jobs, and half my neighbors are out of work,” he said. “That factory had as many as 200 workers at one time. And now we’re talking about converting that to residential, which will put a burden on services like schools, fire, and police.”
On a fact sheet he printed for last month’s Town Meeting, Penney argued that the town already has more than 2,300 rental units. He warned that more housing would burden the schools.
“We need more jobs, not more apartments with children needing an education,” Penney wrote.
The Lowney Chocolate Factory is a significant piece of the town’s local history, according to McNatt, and worth preserving. Lowney, already well-established in the bonbon business when he came to Mansfield in 1903, was a well-liked and generous employer. In addition to his factory, he built housing for his workers and even constructed a clubhouse with reading rooms, lockers, and billiard rooms. He also ran his own baseball team, called The Lowneys.
Lowney died in 1921, but the candy-making continued until 2011 under a string of other owners.