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Build apartments, and they will come

Despite considerable progress in improving downtown Medford over the past 30 years, one key component remains lacking: more housing for people who want to live downtown.

A federal grant program to seismically retrofit old buildings through the Federal Emergency Management Agency offers the chance to jump-start some projects that could change that by helping building owners with the up-front costs of renovation.

One potential site is the second story of the building housing Bricktowne Brewing Co. at the corner of Eighth and Central. While the building once housed a hotel and then a boarding house, code issues forced the owner to close the second story.

The FEMA grants — which city officials apparently were unaware of until recently — could pay up to 75 percent of the cost of a seismic retrofit, up to $4 million. That would still leave the cost of renovating the spaces to 21st century residential standards, but could transform such a project from a "maybe someday" dream into a "let's get started" reality.

The Medford Urban Renewal Agency has had some notable successes, from its loan program that spruced up storefronts to streetscape improvements, The Commons park blocks and parking structures, but planned residential housing components never materialized for a variety of reasons. The block that eventually became One West Main was originally slated to include residential units along with commercial and office space. The Commons project was originally planned to include a residential component as well, but the housing recession intervened and the project was scaled back.

More retail and commercial activity is much more likely to happen when there is a critical mass of people not just working downtown but living there, walking the sidewalks in the evening, patronizing stores and restaurants not just during the day but in the evenings as well.

The FEMA grants offer a way for building owners to bring their structures up to residential standards for earthquake safety. That won't immediately translate into new housing units, but it's an essential first step.

The city may be able to apply for only one grant this year, but officials say they plan to push for four or five projects next year. Responses from 16 property owners show the interest is there.

Let's get started.