Auburn sees housing as centerpiece to neighborhood revival
Initially published on February 2, 2018 on The Lewiston Sun Journal, by Andrew Rice.
AUBURN — Change is in store for the Hampshire Street neighborhood, and a state financing application due next week from the developer of a 53-unit workforce housing development could ultimately decide how soon the overhaul is completed.
Infrastructure projects on the block of land between Auburn’s busiest downtown streets are already underway, but the housing development — and some public criticism — has put into motion efforts to expand parking options and pedestrian access throughout the downtown.
While concerns have floated over the property sale price and impact on Auburn Public Library parking, city officials see the housing development on Hampshire and Troy streets as a critical step in the revitalization of the neighborhood.
Criticism from residents during City Council public comment and on social media have focused on the loss of parking and financial impact to the city. The list of requirements to get the project rolling was lengthy, but on par with similar affordable housing projects.
The city sold well-known developer The Szanton Co. the plot of land for $45,000, but also gave the project $110,000 in federal HOME program funding and created a 30-year tax increment financing district. A large section of Troy Street will also be discontinued.
The four-story building will include a mix of 14 market rate and 39 workforce housing units, which officials say are badly needed downtown.
City Manager Peter Crichton said the city solicited Szanton specifically to do the project.
“We’re invested significantly in Hampshire Street, and we’re trying to improve that area,” he said recently. “There are a lot of reasons we need to do the project, and that site made sense.”
Andy Jackson, project manager for The Szanton Co., said the company began talks with the city and former Mayor Jonathan LaBonte in early 2017. He said the Troy Street property “quickly became” the most viable.
He said for projects aimed at keeping units affordable, the purchase price is a “key financial component,” because it impacts available funds for design and construction.
But some have said the city should have gotten more for the land.
‘All tied together’
Jackson said Szanton offered the city $45,000 for the property, which was just over the assessed value of the land. He said “at some point during the process” the city conducted a reassessment, which boosted its value to $387,000. Yet Szanton didn’t pay that price.
All the components combined, Jackson said, play a big role in a competitive process to score financing from the Maine Housing Authority, which issues federal low-income housing tax credits. Because Szanton bought the property at the lower price, it will receive more points in its financing application.
City Assessor Karen Scammon said that while reviewing the valuation of properties in the area, she noted “the property in question was being assessed at a different rate than comparable commercial land in that area. It needed to be adjusted to ensure equity. I adjusted the valuation at that time.”
Jackson said a purchase and sale agreement was already in the works when the new assessment was done, and that the large jump in the price would have impacted the feasibility of the project.
“We couldn’t afford to pay the higher assessed value and have a real project,” he said, adding that the new assessment “doesn’t seem to be aligned with the market for empty parking lots in Auburn.”
Crichton confirmed that when the site was first considered by Szanton, the assessed value was still under $45,000.
“In light of having the opportunity to have a $9.1 million project for workforce housing, we felt it was an investment that was worthwhile,” Crichton said.
While a recent letter to the Sun Journal stated that the city had overlooked a legal obligation to first offer the property to abutters, Crichton said that was not true.
In the letter, writer Robert Spencer said Auburn residents are about to be “fleeced” out of more than a quarter of a million dollars. Yet, the city says it will receive $40,000 in annual tax revenue on a lot that currently receives nothing.
Jackson said the City Council took a look at “the big picture of our project and decided it was still worth it to sell it to us at that price.”
Last week, Amy Cullen, development officer for Szanton, spoke during a forum on housing in Lewiston. Among the discussion points was the difficulty, nationwide, of keeping housing projects affordable.
Jackson said his application for financing will go up against 13 other projects seeking funding in Maine, out of a pool of money that will only fund four or five projects. He said a big part of the “scorecard” is financial feasibility, including whether a developer has partnered with the city on a TIF agreement. If an application is found lacking, a developer must wait until the next application cycle.
“It’s all tied together,” he said.
The application results should be known in March or April, but if not selected, the project would have to reapply in August, setting the project back. At the very earliest, Jackson said, construction on the project would begin a year from now.
That timeline is giving city officials time to study replacement parking.
Doug Greene, Auburn’s urban development coordinator, has been working on the project and on identifying additional parking. He said the city will be hosting neighborhood meetings in the future to discuss potential parking locations.
Mamie Anthoine Ney, director of the Auburn Public Library, said the Troy Street lot is used for overflow parking but also for patrons who require longer parking than one to two hours. She said the lot is used “every day by one type of customer or another. If there is a program or large meeting here it is not unusual for us to just about fill the lot.”
“While we are concerned about losing our parking capability in the Troy Street lot, we are hopeful that we will be able to identify additional parking nearby,” she said. “We’ve identified current spaces that can be turned into additional customer parking, so that eases our concerns greatly.”
Jackson said that along with the city’s efforts, Szanton is also buying land from Pan Am Railways that could be turned into parking. He said he’s confident that between their efforts and the city’s, they can identify more than the 30 to 35 estimated parking spaces in the lot.
The revitalization project on Hampshire Street will also add on-street parking when it’s completed this spring. Among other improvements being eyed by the city are enhanced pedestrian crossings on Court Street and at other nearby intersections.
Crichton said he’s “encouraged” by the projects happening downtown. A similar housing project with 41 units is under construction at 62 Spring St., and another is in the works at 477 Minot Ave., next to Fairview Elementary School.
He said Greene will soon issue a progress report on the parking issue to the City Council, “to let people know what’s going on.”