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Council backs selling half of school site to housing agency


But some neighbors say the plan to build 16 units will further limit parking on Munjoy Hill.

 

The Portland Press Herald

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

 

PORTLAND - The City Council on Monday voted unanimously to sell half of the Adams Elementary School site to Avesta Housing to build 16 condominium units geared to working families.

The project has been significantly scaled down from a pre-recession proposal to build 40 homes on the entire site.

Since the original deal was put together in the summer of 2008, the sale price also went down -- from $600,000 for the 1.5-acre site between Munjoy and Vesper streets to $250,000 for 0.73 acres near Vesper.

Avesta Housing officials said that problems in financial markets and the economy caused the financing for the original plan to "evaporate."

Avesta Housing, which is the largest nonprofit housing agency in Maine, plans to use $1.7 million in stimulus money to fund the project.

The money comes from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, a federal program established to stabilize communities that have suffered from foreclosures and abandonment.

Several city councilors Monday said they wished the $5.5 million project had more housing, noting that it would be less dense than the existing neighborhood. They said they nevertheless support the project because there is no other public financing available and because the city could lose the stimulus if it doesn't spend it soon.

"I would love the opportunity to stop now, redesign and come back with something better, but that is not going to happen," City Councilor David Marshall said.

Councilor Kevin Donoghue who represents Munjoy Hill, said the project isn't ideal, but at least it will provide 16 units large enough to support families.

"This is what is possible," he said.

The project still needs to go to the Planning Board for review.

The 16 units will be sold to families who earn 120 percent or less of the area median household income. For example, Avesta plans to sell the two-bedroom units to households that earn from $44,000 to $58,000 at prices ranging from $193,000 to $214,000.

The housing will be built along on the northeast half of the lot near Vesper Street.

The existing playground will remain in its current location, and the undeveloped portion of the lot will be graded and seeded, except for the existing staff parking lot.

City officials at an executive session last week decided to move the playground to a narrow corridor in the middle of the site, but neighborhood opposition was so intense that the City Council on Monday decided to keep the playground at its current location.

Several residents on Monday criticized the project. They said the project will only exacerbate the lack of parking in the area because it provides only one parking space per unit. They also questioned the price Avesta offered.

"They are getting a sweetheart deal, but they are not giving a sweetheart deal with homeowners in the area," said Tim Flanagan, who lives on Vesper Street. "This is not fair."

A committee of neighborhood residents and city planners had recommended the original proposal. People who had served on the committee told councilors that they are frustrated that project was changed without their input or knowledge.

Matt Thayer, who chaired that committee, said the lack of community involvement in the redesign was a "significant disappointment."

Eric Stark said that he and other residents have learned a lesson: Don't get involved.

"The attitude there in City Hall is they are going to do what they do -- why did they bother to waste our time?"

The Adams School was built in 1958 and closed when the East End Community School opened in 2006.

Avesta will spend $250,000 to tear down the school and clean up the land that will remain in city hands. Councilor Cheryl Leeman said the demolition costs must be taken into account when judging the sales price.

Avesta President Dana Totman said he expects the demolition work will be complete by the end of the year so construction could begin in the spring of 2011.

"We are excited to take this great step in developing what will be a great project," he said in an interview after the council vote. "We are very appreciative to the city and to the neighborhood for their patience and understanding."

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

 

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Check out Avesta's blog, The Porch Light, for more news, updates and stories.

Contact Development and Communications Manager Sara Olson at 207-553-7780 x3352 or by email.