AUGUSTA — A proposal to develop housing in what is now a rarely used city park on Gage Street has hit a snag, but could still proceed on a smaller scale.

A majority of the Augusta City Council expressed informal support last week for a proposal smaller than first pondered by the Augusta Housing Authority — as long as no additional barriers, such as any unforeseen deed restrictions, arise.

Some councilors questioned whether it is a good idea to bring affordable housing into a neighborhood where they said incomes are already low.

“This is already a pretty low-economic neighborhood,” At-Large Councilor Marci Alexander said. “I’m not sure this is a catalyst of change for the neighborhood. I see it, with a low-income population, almost making a concentration of it.”

Amanda Olson, executive director of the Augusta Housing Authority, said the housing, while meant to be affordable, is not expected to attract low-income people given tenants would have to have incomes of at least 2.5 times the monthly rent.

She said residents of the proposed apartments could have incomes of up to 60% of the area’s median income, which she said would be about $40,000 a year for a family of three or four people.

Olson said projections indicate another housing authority development now under construction on Maple Street in Augusta, with the same income restrictions as the proposed Gage Street project, will draw tenants who on average will make more than most of the residents who now live in that neighborhood.

Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said she would be OK with some workforce housing being developed in the Gage Street neighborhood. She said it “needs something, and not to become a ghetto, not to become further ghettoized, would be the first thing. A small workforce housing thing, I think is worth discussing.”

Olson had initially anticipated the quasi-governmental housing authority could have around 40 units of housing built on the site.

However, City Manager William Bridgeo said Leif Dahlin, community services director, told him the city accepted federal grant money in the 1980s to build recreational amenities, including basketball courts on the site, known as Macomber Park. He said getting those funds required the city to sign a binding agreement to not sell or develop that part of the property for anything other than recreational purposes.

Bridgeo noted those restrictions do not apply to the entire 6-acre parcel, so there may still be room to build housing there.

“Quite possibly, that property would be large enough,” Bridgeo said. “It’s a couple of acres to accommodate the housing development, and the green area would make a nice abutting recreational area for the residents not just of that development, but the rest of the neighborhood.”

Olson said the housing authority is still interested in the site for a smaller project than first planned, of up to 29 apartments. She said Augusta remains well short of an adequate supply of affordable housing and many tenants are living in substandard rental housing.

MaineHousing data compiled this year, Olson said, indicates 449 more units of affordable housing are needed for families in Augusta.

The housing authority asked the city to transfer the property to the authority, not sell it, but Olson said it would also be open to a long-term lease for the property. That was done with the city-owned properties where the authority has housing developments now at the former Hodgkins Middle School building and on Maple Street.

Both of those leases, as well as a lease of the former Cony flatiron building to another developer when that building was also converted to senior housing, include only token yearly payments from the developers to the city, for 50 years.

Olson said the proposal would depend on receiving tax credits from the Maine Housing Authority, through a competitive process.

All of the city councilors other than Alexander agreed to sponsor a proposal to lease the property to the authority to build housing on the Gage Street site, as long as city officials first research whether there could be any deed restrictions attached to the property that could further limit its use.

Alexander expressed concerns the site does not appear to be a safe location, in a valley between two steep hills that she said makes traffic unsafe for a housing development.

Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind said Augusta has many hills but that should not stop a location from being considered for housing. He said he applauded Olson’s work with the housing authority to try to improve affordable housing in Augusta.

“You’re providing safe housing, lifting people up in the community and if you lift one person up, you lift up the whole community, so hopefully that’s where we are going to go,” he said. “It’s needed. I think this is an unused lot now. I’m for providing safe affordable housing in the city, so I’ve got no problem with this at all.”

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