Avesta unveils plans for housing complex

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Maine’s largest nonprofit developer of affordable housing will submit plans by Feb. 28 for a three-story, 21-unit apartment complex to replace downtown Bridgton’s biggest eyesore, the so-called Chapter 11 property.

Avesta Housing, Inc.’s plans for “247 Main,” as the elderly and disabled housing complex will be called, needed some redesign in light of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s unwillingness to allow as much of a reduction in minimum lot sizes as Bridgton wanted for shoreland zoning on that end of Main Street. Two-thirds of the .67-acre property, which is under a purchase and sales agreement from owner Zack Schlar, lies within the shoreland zone as defined by Stevens Brook. The DEP was only willing to drop the current 50,000-square-foot minimum lot size standard to 5,000 square feet, instead of the 1,000-square-foot per bedroom standard the town had sought, which was approved by voters last month. (See sidebar, page __).

Avesta, whose investors require 19 one-bedroom units and 2 one-bedroom units to make the project economically feasible, hopes to overcome that regulatory hurdle by repositioning the proposed 20,000-square-foot building so that the length of it runs along Gibbs Avenue, instead of Depot Street as originally envisioned. That way, only four or five of the units would be subject to shoreland zoning, and the rest would not be subject to minimum lot size restrictions, but would be reviewed under general standards for site plan review, said Matt Peters, project manager for Avesta.

“We’re excited, and we’ve had a lot of people already calling,” wanting to be put on the waiting list for housing, said Peters, who works out of Avesta’s main office in Portland. The agency, which also built and owns the 12-unit Wayside Pines elderly and disabled housing complex on Wayside Avenue in Bridgton, currently has 48 people on the waiting list for housing there, where less than one percent of residents qualify as disabled and the rest are elderly. Peters expects the same percentages would apply at 247 Main, which, if approved by the planning board, would start being constructed by the end of this fall and take 10 months to complete.

The complex would have coin-op laundry facilities on the ground floor but no commercial retail space; Peters said the investors providing the financing for the $4 million-plus project were not willing to risk on a mixed-use development as Avesta and the town had hoped for. “I thought it was important” to make some commercial space available, said Peters, considering the lot’s prime commercial location in Pondicherry Square, where mixed-use commercial buildings frame the easterly gateway to downtown Main Street off Route 302.

Peters said many prospective renters are looking forward to the prospect of giving up their need for a car and being able to walk to everything they need — including Food City, the supermarket owned by Sclar just off the square.

“We want to provide a great building that the town can be proud of and the residents who live there can be proud of.”

Avesta Housing will have controlling ownership in the building, which is being developed by a for-profit limited partnership using new market tax credits and subsidies from Housing and Urban Development. The town would gain an estimated $48,000 a year in new tax revenue from the development, not to mention the revitalization spin-off benefits to that depressed block, where shoreland zoning restrictions have kept investors away.

Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz, in appealing to the DEP to reconsider the town’s 1,000-square-foot per bedroom request, wrote that as one enters Pondicherry Square, “the visible shock of a dilapidated inventory of commercial properties cannot be ignored.”

The Chapter 11 building, an aging 50s-style brick store originally built as an A & P Supermarket, was considered as one of the worst to look at, with a big expanse of blacktop in front and an oversized sign. Peters said the corner of Lower Depot and Main would have courtyard-style landscaping, with parking for the 21 units located along Depot Street.

“We will still be able to maintain a strong face to Main Street,” with a main entrance there and another entrance/exit to the parking area along Depot Street. Designers have relied on zoning maps thus far in developing a sketch plan; an engineering survey still needs to be done to determine building placement, he said. The plans don’t include a sidewalk extension on Gibbs Avenue, but Peters said Avesta is willing to have that discussion if the board raises the issue. The town’s Central Fire Station is located up the hill behind the lot, and fire trucks use both Gibbs Avenue and Lower Depot Street to access Main Street.

HUD income limits for eligible renters are currently $22,000 a year for a one-bedroom apartment and $25,800 a year for a two-bedroom unit, said Peters. The renters only have to pay a third of their annual income for housing; a person making $21,000 a year would pay $7,000 annually to rent there, or $583 a month. “I think everyone deserves fair housing,” said Peters.

Avesta had originally eyed the seven-acre Crockett Ridge parcel, just off Pondicherry Square, for development but investors backed away from costs associated with overcoming wetland challenges and extending sewer to the site, Peters said. He added that his agency has, over the last two years, leaned more toward downtown sites within easy walking distance to amenities, such as the 37-unit Oak Street Loft in Portland, an affordable housing complex targeting artist-lifestyle types of any age. “It allows people to be closer to the places they work or visit, so they can walk to work and don’t have to have a car,” he said.

Peters said he hopes 247 Main, if approved, would serve as a catalyst for revitalization throughout the General Development II District, and wants its design to be in keeping with the spirit of form-based code development standards now being developed by the Comprehensive Plan Committee — even though a town-wide vote on those standards is still many months away.

Please follow and like us: