AUGUSTA — Neighbors opposed to the Augusta Housing Authority’s proposal to build 34 apartments meant to be affordable to working people on the city-owned former Statler mill site say it could prevent other developers from bringing what they describe as more desirable new development to the riverside site, including condominiums and retail shops or restaurants.

However, a developer of several major area projects, who is not involved in the proposal, says an affordable housing complex could actually help, not hinder, efforts to draw more extensive development to the property that city officials have long sought to have redeveloped.

City councilors, housing authority officials and neighbors to the site discussed the proposal for some three hours Thursday, debating whether the city should strike a tax deal, and provide the land for the site at no cost to the housing authority, to help make the project happen.

Several residents of Maple Street, a residential dead-end street which as proposed would be the only way to and from the new apartments, criticized the project and said the presence of low-income housing on the site could deter those who might bring development to the site the entire community could benefit from, such as cultural offerings, or a brew pub, or who might bring higher-end housing to the spot.

Joyce Grondin, whose Maple Street home would be a short distance away from the apartments, served on the Eastside Planning Committee which, in 2011, studied what should be done with portions of the city near the east side of the Kennebec River in Augusta, including the Statler site. The committee’s vision for that site was for restaurants and retail and recreational opportunities and high-end condominiums, not low-income housing, and did not include plans to access the spot from Maple Street.

“I’m really disappointed the city appears to have given up on that plan,” Grondin said Thursday night. “That river is a gem and should be utilized that way. Bring some development there that is going to enhance that. And some culture. (The housing authority’s proposal) might deter another developer from coming here.”

Developer Kevin Mattson, who is not involved in the project but has been involved in numerous major developments in the area and state, including the Central Maine Commerce Center and Ballard Center in Augusta, as well as a more recent Waterville project proposed to convert the former Seton Hospital into a 59-unit apartment complex, said in a Friday interview he doesn’t think low income housing would be a deterrent to more high-end development elsewhere on the site.

“I think if anything, what we’ve learned about successful housing projects, particularly new housing, is a mixture of not only income levels, but age levels, is best,” Mattson, a former Hallowell resident who now lives in Freeport, said. “I think it is actually a positive. If I was developing a new community, I would never want to limit it to just high end housing. (Low income housing) wouldn’t bother me at all, as long as it is managed by someone reputable.”

Mattson said he, coincidentally, was just looking at the former Statler site, which the city has renamed Kennebec Lockes, last week from across the river at Mill Park. He said it is a remarkable, beautiful site.

He said its major challenges to being redeveloped appear to him to be that it is a bit removed from the downtown area and other areas of commerce, and the cost of infrastructure could be high at the site. He said development at the site should probably be a destination, as the spot won’t have traffic passing by. He said housing would likely be a good primary use of the site.

Though the city has not yet found any takers willing to redevelop the site, Mattson said eventually one will step forward.

“I think Augusta really has a jewel there, the question is how do you overcome those obstacles that are keeping people from bidding,” he said.

City Manager William Bridgeo said the city had a study done to estimate the cost of building a new road into the site, from Willow Street on the southern end all the way to the northern end, about a mile away. He said it would cost $1.7 million per mile, money the city does not currently have available for such a project. He said councilors may want to discuss ways to potentially fund the construction of a road as part of their goals discussion next year.

Mayor David Rollins said the city needs to in some way address the issue of how to access the site, if it ever expects to draw development to it, which city councilors have set as one of their goals for this year.

Housing needed

Neighbors said there are many problems with using Maple Street as the access to the apartment development, which would be on the southern end of the property, back away from the river at the end of Maple Street. They said the street is too narrow and the additional traffic would disrupt their quiet neighborhood.

When a mill was operating at the site it was accessed from Maple Street and Drum Barker Road, off Riverside Drive next to O’Connor Motors. However city officials have said there are questions about who owns the steep, narrow Drum Barker Road, so relying on that as an access route could be problematic.

City councilors didn’t take any action Thursday on the proposal to strike a tax increment financing, or TIF, deal, to help the Augusta Housing Authority, which is independent of the city, take on the project. The housing authority has also asked that the city lease about two acres of the roughly 20-acre Kennebec Lockes site to the authority, at no cost.

Councilor could vote on those proposals at their Thursday business meeting. The project would also need approval from the Planning Board and would also have to be successful in getting awarded low income housing tax credits, from MaineHousing, a very competitive process, officials said.

Amanda Bartlett, executive director of the housing authority, said the project won’t be feasible without both a TIF deal with the city and an arrangement for the authority to get the land for the site at no cost.

The proposed new $6 million development would not have subsidized rents but would be restricted to residents making less than 50 to 60 percent of the area median income. That could range, according to Kevin Bunker, of Developers Collaborative, who is working with the authority on the project, from just over $17,000 a year in income for a single person in a one-unit apartment, up to $40,000 a year in income for a family in a three-bedroom unit.

Rents would range from $581 to $967.

Bartlett said a Maine Housing Authority study indicated 449 more units of housing are needed in Augusta to meet the housing demand.

“We’ve done so much work in this town, revitalizing downtown, we’ve got the new Y, the new high school … but in order for us to keep growing Augusta needs to be a great place to live, not just a great place to work and be,” Bartlett said. “We need to have housing available for people who are in the workforce who don’t have the resources to live outside of town, who need to live where they work.”

Jobs first?

Michael Lee, a landlord and property manager who owns two apartment buildings on Maple Street, said the housing authority could make better use of the funds it’d spend to develop the 34-unit, six building complex it has proposed by helping landlords fix up existing buildings so they meet current building safety codes. He said $35,000, a fraction of the project’s per unit cost, would be enough to install a sprinkler system in an eight-unit apartment building to bring it up to code.

Bartlett said while the authority does currently have some grant money it is using for a program helping landlords fix code issues in existing buildings, there is very little money available to do such projects. She said low income and state and federal historic preservation tax credits are the only programs which provide significant funding that can help the local authority create better housing in Augusta.

Craig Woodward, who owns and lives in a duplex on Maple Street, said he doesn’t think the housing authority project is a good use of money. He noted the per unit cost comes out to about $175,000 a unit, money he said could build a nice house elsewhere in Augusta. He also said the city shouldn’t encourage the creation of more low-income housing.

“Jobs should come first, not housing,” he said. “There is nothing here in Augusta, you’ve got to bring in jobs first. The reason you have low income people is you don’t have quality jobs. I just think it’s low income housing and it makes the city low income. It adds to it.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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