WESTBROOK – A preliminary plan to turn into affordable housing two historic Westbrook buildings that were once part of St. Hyacinth Church has run into some opposition.
Avesta Housing, based in Portland, is planning to renovate two buildings once used the church, turning both into complexes offering one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments to lower-income families.
The Roman Catholic Church once used the two buildings as a school and a parish center and convent for the Brown Street parish, but in 2005, the church consolidated St. Hyacinth with two other churches in the city, St. Edmund and St. Mary, under a new parish named St. Anthony of Padua Parish, which holds its services in the St. Hyacinth Church building on Brown Street.
As part of the consolidation, the church closed down the St. Edmund and St. Mary buildings, and put the former St. Hyacinth school and parish center/convent buildings up for sale.
As of now, Avesta’s involvement in the project is minimal. The company has purchased the property, at an undisclosed price. But the details of the renovations, including plans for what the new buildings would look like, are being left up to the Developers Collaborative, a consortium of private, for-profit developers who seek out projects that will make money as well as benefit the community.
Developers Collaborative provided an initial look into the project at a workshop meeting of the Westbrook Planning Board last week, presenting a sketch plan and taking input from the members of the board and the public.
At the meeting, Kevin Bunker, who is representing the Developers Collaborative in the project, told the board that the plan calls for 37 units, which will be owned and operated by Avesta after they are completed. He said the plan calls for two efficiency units, 16 one-bedroom units, 11 two-bedroom units and eight three-bedroom units, to be spread out in the former school and convent/parish center buildings, as well as a third building that would be constructed on the 4.6-acre site.
The project will be funded through money raised from tax credits issued by the Maine State Housing Authority, as well as through money from historic building tax credits from the U.S. Department of the Interior. The money from the Department of the Interior is available for the project because there are no plans to change the appearance of the exterior of the historic buildings – the exteriors will simply be repaired and restored to their original appearance.
The plan also calls for the adjacent 3-acre Walker Field to remain as undeveloped land, Bunker said, adding that there will be an easement granted to ensure the land remains available to the public as a recreation area.
“Avesta and us see this park as a huge asset to the neighborhood,” Bunker said. “We want to make this park an asset everyone can use.”
But some on the board questioned the need for more affordable housing in the neighborhood. Vice Chairman Rene Daniel, while not indicating if he would vote against the final project when and if it comes before the board, did express some concerns.
“I’m torn, because I really want to see the site used,” he said. “(But) it bothers me that we are going for more affordable family housing when there are already 220 units within 1,000 feet (of the project).”
Daniel said that the units he was referring to were the Avesta-owned Steeple Square, located on Walker and Webb streets; Westbrook Housing’s 27-unit Schoolhouse Commons on Bridge Street; and multiple units of low-rent housing located along Brown Street.
Daniel also added that the new building to be constructed, which was described as more of a traditional, wood-shingled, New England-style building, had a “real lack of character.”
Rowena Walton, who lives on Pike Street, told the board she was taken aback by the scope of the proposal.
“I don’t mind having the parish center and the school being developed, because I think that’s important,” she said. “I don’t want to see them sitting there. (But) it’s kind of overwhelming for me to hear about these plans. I like my neighborhood, I like the quiet.”
Another neighbor, James Tranchemontagne, of Cole Street, told the board he was also surprised about the scope of the project, saying that he felt the sketch plan raised “more questions than answers.”
Tranchemontagne said he would like to see a study done to see if the city does indeed need more affordable housing, something that he said acted as a drain on the community. “It’s a lot of people who come into our neighborhood who don’t pay taxes,” he said.
Tranchemontagne also said that he felt that affordable housing was unfair.
“It’s economic discrimination to allow certain groups of people to be able to live in a community at a lower level than working-class people,” he said.
He also said he believed the introduction of more affordable housing in the neighborhood would “undermine the landlords” in the area, adding that he owns rental property in the neighborhood, and this project could be “devastating to the amount of money that I can charge for my rent.”
Mark Cole of King Street, who also owns property in the area, said he also had some questions about the project, especially since public tax credits would be playing such a key role in its financing.
“I think there may be a better use of the money in these buildings,” he told the board.
The Planning Board took no action on the matter after the discussion was over, as the meeting was an informal workshop discussion.
According to City Engineer Eric Dudley, Avesta does not have a formal proposal for the project before the city yet. After presenting their concept as part of the sketch plan, Dudley said the next step is for Developers Collaborative and Avesta to come back before the board and present a formal site and subdivision plan. Dudley added there is no timetable for the company to come back before the board.