The Portland Daily Sun
By Casey Conley
The city's Housing Committee this week is expected to award nearly $2 million in federal housing funds to Avesta Housing, the nonprofit housing developer behind Beckett Green, the housing project planned for the former Adams School site. If all goes well, Avesta officials say construction on the first 16 units could begin by this time next year.
"From our perspective, we're ready to go," said Ethan Boxer-Macomber, a development officer with Avesta. "We are able to say definitively that we now have funding sources in place and a viable project we can move forward with right away."
Funding for the project comes from stimulus money funneled through the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program, a stimulus program created in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis targeting blighted neighborhoods. All told, Maine received $19.6 million, of which $1.3 went to Portland. Another $400,000 in state stimulus funds will also be diverted to the project, which is expected to receive $1.71 million in all.
The Adams School, which closed almost four years ago with the opening of the East End Community School, qualified for funding due to its being vacant, Boxer-Macomber said.
This current version of the $5.5 million Beckett Green project has been scaled back compared with what was announced nearly two years ago -- a decision made in part because of market conditions, the availability of housing subsidies, and neighborhood input, Boxer-Macomber says.
"It's been a very unusual process where we came in with a project we felt had an opportunity to move forward. Unfortunately, in the months after our submission, the economy went south and the availability of subsidy for ownership housing dried up," he said, referring to state and federal loan programs initially believed to be part of the funding package but which fell through.
Other ideas to fill a funding gap, such as tax breaks, received a cool response from the city.
The stimulus provided a new opportunity to jump-start the project in one fell swoop, rather than cobbling together multiple funding sources. Boxer-Macomber says the $1.7 million expected from the city closes the gap and allows Avesta to begin construction on the first phase. Later, as funding is available, a second phase will be built.
The current plans call for 16 two and three-bedroom units as well as an on-site playground and a new greenway connecting O'Brion and Beckett streets. The units will be sold to buyers whose incomes qualify -- a range that stretches from about $65,000 for two people to $82,000 for a family of four. Avesta expects to sell the eight two-bedroom units for about $215,000 and the eight three-bedroom units for about $260,000.
Previous plans for Beckett Green called for 40 units, which would have included 20 larger apartments and 20 attached one-bedroom units, to be sold in pairs. Those plans changed after another project, the rehabilitation of St. Patrick's School on Congress Street, added a dozen one-bedroom affordable housing units to the Portland market.
Councilor Kevin Donoghue, whose district includes the 1.5-acre Adams School site -- situated between Munjoy, Vesper, Moody and Wilson streets -- says the project offers new opportunities both for buyers and for the neighborhood.
"While it is true that unit sales have slowed significantly, [housing] prices are still typically out of reach for working families on the Peninsula," Donoghue said in an email message. "Beckett Green promises high quality housing at comparatively affordable prices with an enviable location in the heart of Munjoy Hill.
"Affordable home-ownership opportunities promise to stabilize the neighborhood and the site design should open up some new views," he continued.
Avesta officials say three hurdles must be cleared between now and the start of the project. Boxer-Macomber says the Housing Committee, which meets Wednesday, must first vote to allocate the $1.7 million in federal funds. Then, the city council must both approve the allocation and agree to sell the former school to Avesta to begin the redevelopment. Finally, he says a neighborhood meeting must then be held to gather input from the community before the school is torn down and construction begins.
Assuming the project receives city approval in the coming months and no new hurdles crop up, construction could begin by spring 2011.