• Angelo J. Verzoni

Officials break ground on lofts project

Originally published on October 7th, 2015 in The Portland Press Herald, by Angelo J. Verzoni.


BIDDEFORD — On Tuesday, about 50 people gathered outside two buildings in the Riverdam Mill complex, at the end of Pearl Street, for a groundbreaking ceremony for the Lofts at Saco Falls, a $15 million project to turn the buildings into an 80-unit apartment complex.

“All of the financing is now in place, so that whole piece, which we’ve been working on for the last three years, is now finally behind us and now we can focus on construction and then marketing,” he said. “It’s a real milestone in the history of this project.”


The 92,000-square-foot Lofts at Saco Falls is slated to open in August of 2016 and will feature 64 onebedroom apartments, 15 two-bedroom units and one studio apartment – the majority of which will be workforce or affordable housing – spread through two four-story buildings wrapped around a grassy courtyard with trees and granite benches, which will be open to the public.


“We’re trying to reach a span of income levels,” said Amy Cullen, development officer of The Szanton Company, adding that rents for the one-bedroom apartments will range from about $570 to $825 a month. Tenants will also receive access to free wireless Internet, a community room, a fitness center and a heated bicycle storage room.


The project was funded by $7.5 million in tax credits from MaineHousing, $5.7 million in combined state and federal historic tax credits, $1.4 million in a mortgage from MaineHousing and a $500,000 bank loan.


Offering rents about $300 a month below market rate, Szanton – who also developed the adjacent, 66-unit Mill at Saco Falls apartment complex, which opened in 2010 – predicted the Lofts at Saco Falls will appeal to a demographic that includes young college graduates just starting their careers, retirees, service workers and others making less than the area median income.


Of the several people who spoke at Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony, including Mayor Alan Casavant, many highlighted the rapid redevelopment of the city’s mill district in general over the last few years.


“It’s a thrill to see old mill buildings being renovated,” said Casavant, adding that not long ago being a “mill town” had a negative connotation. “Today we look at (mills) as being special, architecturally and even culturally.”


Director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission Kirk Mohney, who also spoke at the ceremony, said the preservation of buildings such as the ones being renovated for the lofts project, which date back to the 1840s and were used to produce machinery for nearby cotton mills, is “particularly important and worthwhile.”


“The commission has and will continue to be supportive of this exciting work,” he said.

Large-scale efforts to revitalize Biddeford’s mill district began more than 10 years ago, when in 2004 Doug Sanford purchased the North Dam Mill, taking a chance on what was then an essentially dead mill district. Five years later, he purchased the remainder of the Pepperell Mill complex and created the Pepperell Mill Campus, which comprises 1.1 million square feet of sprawling building space that is now about 40 percent full.


While many feel Sanford pioneered mill development in downtown Biddeford, city officials and other developers consider the tipping point of revitalization to be the city’s decision in 2012 to purchase and close the Maine Energy Recovery Company’s waste-to-energy incinerator, which operated for 25 years just a few hundred feet from the site of the Lofts at Saco Falls. Szanton, for example, called the decision a “catalyst” for his lofts project.


“Without the closure of MERC this project would never be happening,” he said. “We could just not imagine asking residents of a high-quality, well-managed, beautiful housing project to live next door to a trash plant where garbage trucks were driving in and out at all hours of the day and effluent was spewing out of the smokestack.”


Since the closure of MERC, the city has seen more than $77 million in investment in mill buildings that are located less than a quarter mile from the former site of the trash burner – including, in addition to Szanton’s lofts project, a $50 million project to turn the Lincoln Mill into a hotel and apartment complex with two restaurants and a $12.5 million project to add affordable senior housing to a building in the Pepperell Mill Campus.


With the ongoing development activity in the area, Szanton said it’s an exciting time to break ground on the lofts project.


“I think the community is changing character right in front of our eyes,” he said, “from kind of a failed mill town, where the residents lacked confidence in the mill district as any kind of economic driver of the community, to one where the mill district is gradually coming to be perceived as a huge asset to the community.”


— Staff Writer Angelo J. Verzoni can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or averzoni@journaltribune.com.


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