HALLOWELL — The proposed re-use of the Stevens School complex — a multi-million dollar, multi-year project — is now in the hands of the city Planning Board.

The master plan for the Stevens School property at the top of Winthrop Street in Hallowell lays out a proposal that if completed, would be the biggest redevelopment project in city history.

Owner and developer Matt Morrill submitted his vision for the campus, which is now known as Stevens Commons, to the city Sept. 16. The code enforcement officer, Planning Board and City Council will now review the plan, and it’s a process that could extended well into next year.

“I think there’s an energy, and there are a lot of people in the city that are excited,” Mayor Mark Walker said. “We need to keep the momentum going and this is the next step.”

Morrill, of Grand View Log and Timber Frames in Winthrop, acquired the property from the state in April for $215,000. His vision for the property, which was originally a boarding school for girls in the late 1800s, is as a mixed-use development featuring affordable senior housing, commercial and residential space and small, clustered subdivisions.

“We’re excited and relieved that (the plan) is submitted, because it was a long process,” Morrill said. “We had 12 different engineers and architects involved, along with other consultants. Now we begin the review process.”

The first part of that process is reviewing the application’s completeness. Interim Code Enforcement Officer Dick Dolby, who spent 20-plus years heading the code enforcement office in Augusta, is a good fit for the city, Councilor Alan Stearns said.

“We’re lucky to have Dick where he is today, though I think the Planning Board might rely on outside consultants to help them through the process,” Stearns said. “If Dolby stays (as CEO), then we’re in a good position.”

Dolby asked for assistance from the Planning Board in reviewing the master plan’s completeness. Morrill is confident Dolby’s experience in dealing with plans of this magnitude will help smooth the process.

“I am more comfortable because he has a good knowledge base to start from,” Morrill said. “He knows how to interpret the ordinances and work through his part of the process.”

Earlier this summer, Walker made several new appointments to the Planning Board in anticipation of the Stevens Commons project.

“I feel great after going through some of the steps we’ve already taken with them that have gone fairly smooth, and I think if we keep that general understanding and good working relationship, we’ll get through this,” Morrill said.

The collaboration between Morrill and the Planning Board will continue for quite some time, Stearns said, so the Planning Board “will need solid staff and consultant support,” and Stearns has “a lot of confidence in the board to roll up their sleeves and shape this project for the best.”

The re-development of the property will be a welcome addition to the city’s tax base. The property was tax-exempt when it was owned by the state, so the city where the property has been located for more than a century will finally reap some financial reward. Morrill said the biggest immediate challenge for him is funding.

“We’re talking about nine buildings and 54 acres, so it’s a huge undertaking financially and physically,” Morrill said. He was not comfortable offering a guess on how much the complete redevelopment of the property would cost, but it’d be safe to say it would be in the millions.

Morrill and his company aren’t going to be developing the entire property. The master plan was set up so that more developers could participate; Morrill expects to keep one or two buildings for his company.

“It’s a matter of recouping costs at some point because it’s been a constant stream of money going out,” he said. “At some point we need to change that.”

As part of the deal with the state, the state agreed to lease the administrative building and its associated garage for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry until Jan. 15, 2017, for $2,130 per month. Morrill said the state will not be extending the lease after it expires early next year.

The master plan is a conceptual drawing of a list of potential uses and potential layout, but it’s not an actual construction drawing. Morrill is open to continued feedback from other developers and members of the public if they “come with a potential use that we hadn’t thought of. It leaves the door open for that potential use.”

Morrill expects work will begin immediately to repair some of the infrastructure of the property, including the installation of a new water main and fire suppression system, thanks to a $248,000 forgivable loan from the city to Morrill’s Mastway Development.

The infrastructure improvements will ultimately support an affordable housing development in the next few years at the Stevens Commons site.

Another financial arrangement that has been discussed involves the city getting $1 million in bonding and putting that toward repairing sections of roads, adding sidewalks and street lighting around Beech Street and other improvements. As part of the deal, the city would take ownership of the roads within the property, and Morrill thinks it’s a necessity for the city to participate in the effort to repair the property’s infrastructure.

“It’s such a selling point when there are city-owned roads, infrastructure that is all redone and utilities owned by the utilities district,” Morrill said. “Any money the city can get from this property at this point is a bonus.”

A project of this magnitude is a first for Morrill and his company, though he said they have done some light commercial projects in the past. He said it’s challenging but “the work is the same, just with a bigger concept.”

“It’s always been my intention to move further into the development world,” Morrill said. “Residential (development) has been great for us, and we still want to continue that part of the business, but we want to grow more in the commercial sector.”

The property currently has three tenants — two psychology practices and Regional School Unit 2. The school district owns the Reed Building on the campus, but that building is having some work done to it, so the district is leasing additional space at Stevens Commons.

If all goes according to schedule, the Planning Board will take up the master plan at its meeting Oct. 19 before it goes to City Council.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ


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