Formal review begins for downtown housing project
By Gail Geraghty
The formal review process for Avesta Housing, Inc. began Tuesday, one year to the month after informal plans surfaced for the nonprofit agency’s intention to build an affordable housing project for the elderly and disabled to replace the former Chapter 11 building at 274 Main Street, Bridgton.
Appearing at a pre-application conference before the Bridgton Planning Board, Avesta Project Manager Matt Peters presented the same sketch plan that was shown to residents a week earlier at a community meeting held by the agency to gauge public reaction and feedback. The plans showed a three-story building with up to 24 one-bedroom apartments on the upper floors and a minimum of 5,200 square feet of ground floor space for retail and/or office use, circulation and equipment rooms. Access to the apartments would be via an elevator and two stairways from an entrance off Lower Depot Street, where 21 parking spaces have been laid out.
The L-shaped complex, which Peters said has roughly the same building footprint as the 7,200-square-foot Chapter 11/former A & P Store, has been positioned with a strong Main Street presence close to the sidewalk, but with most of its length extending close alongside Gibbs Avenue, leaving a green space at the corner of Lower Depot and Main Streets. Peters said the building’s positioning and parking were based both on the problems raised by the rising grade of Gibbs Avenue and the need to avoid the Lower Depot Street portion of the property, which is in the Shoreland Zone.
However, he said Avesta may be making some changes in response to suggestions made at the community meeting urging Avesta to position more of the building facing Main Street, in order to better complement the traditional architecture of Pondicherry Square. “We want to make that Main Street façade really contexural, to fit in well with the fabric of the community,” he said.
Peters said the agency also wasn’t wedded to the current green-colored siding, and that white was another possibility. He pointed out that the first floor features a presence of storefront windows and other aesthetically-pleasing fenestration “to make it pop a little more.”
“To me, that looks like a barracks,” said former Planning Board member Ken Murphy, one of only a few residents who turned out to listen to the preliminary plans. “I don’t think we need a barracks on Main Street,” he added, expressing many residents’ concerns that the project, while filling a clear need, is inappropriate at its proposed location of a prime Main Street commercial parcel.
When Peters asked what kind of building appearance would be more acceptable, Murphy replied, “Look at Wales & Hamblen,” referring to the building across Main Street that was redeveloped by its owners with a high quality, historically-accurate façade.
Planning Board Chairman Steve Collins said that when Avesta returns in December to begin the formal review process, the board will be focusing on the project’s conformance with three ordinances — site plan, subdivision and shoreland zoning. Collins said the project, “because it has been such a hot button issue,” will be subject to a public hearing, which would require around three weeks’ notice following a board vote to hold the hearing. But he cautioned that the board’s decision-making authority will not extend to some concerns residents may have, including income and other eligibility requirements for prospective tenants.
Resident Mark Lopez asked Peters whether Avesta intended to proceed with its review, knowing that in all likelihood residents will be voting next June on a Local Preference Ordinance, limiting occupancy to Bridgton residents. If passed, such an ordinance could scuttle the project if one of the project’s main funding sources, Rural Development, decides the ordinance violates Fair Housing Laws.
Peters said Avesta planned to move ahead regardless, adding that the agency’s goals are essentially the same as supporters of a Local Preference Ordinance, to make quality housing available to Bridgton residents.
Among issues raised by the board Tuesday that Avesta will need to more closely address are parking and pedestrian safety. However, the project also must be approved for a sewer allocation to tie into the Main Street sewer system, and because the servicing leach field is currently over capacity, no new sewer allocations are being issued. Peters said Avesta has expressed its willingness to financially assist the town in resolving the problem, commensurate with its needs. One potential ground floor tenant is Community Dental, which would have a fairly high need for water.
Peters said the number of apartments has not been finalized; initially, the proposal was for 19 one-bedroom and 2 two-bedroom apartments. Recent commitments for more funding has allowed Avesta to consider up to 24 apartments, all one-bedroom units, and on Tuesday Peters said there could perhaps be a few more than 24 apartments. He said amendments to downtown Shoreland Zoning, that voters will decide next month, appear to support the higher number of units.
Peters said Avesta is aware it will likely be required to provide for more parking than the 21 spaces currently proposed. He is aware that currently no overnight parking is allowed in the town’s nearby municipal parking areas, and that if need be, parking for 10 or more extra vehicles could be provided underneath the building.