MaineBiz: New life for old buildings: In Augusta, developers convert old schools to senior housing

Providing appropriate housing for seniors and low-income families has become an even more difficult challenge for Maine towns and cities. Aging housing stock matched with a steep decline in federal and state subsidies has put a real squeeze on the number of new or renovated units that can be built, but some communities are finding creative ways to get projects built.

Augusta has managed to get two of its historic school buildings back into use. A former high school is scheduled to open as senior housing in June and construction to convert a former junior high nearby is scheduled to begin later this year. Together, the projects will provide almost 100 units of subsidized or rent-stabilized apartments in a market where the estimated need is at least twice that.

The old Cony Flatiron building, right on Cony Circle at the end of the Memorial Bridge across the Kennebec River, is the more visible of the two — and the building city officials were most anxious to return to the private sector.

The distinctive three-story brick school, built in 1924, was preserved after the 1970s-era high school was demolished in 2006 to make way for a Hannaford supermarket; a new high school opened the same year about a mile away. But the Flatiron was in danger of turning into a white elephant.

The city, committed to maintaining the structure for possible reuse, spent up to $70,000 annually to heat and maintain the structure, and issued three RFPs before finally attracting the interest of Cynthia Taylor, president of Housing Initiatives of New England, a nonprofit based in Portland.

Taylor was the developer for the conversion of the old city hall on Bridge Street, which offers assisted living for seniors as the Inn at City Hall, and was completed in 2001. The Flatiron building posed unusual challenges, including the city’s desire to preserve the auditorium, once the heart of school activities and public entertainment in the capital city.

In designing the project, Taylor was also constrained by the new emphasis at Maine State Housing on lowering per-unit costs. While keeping open the former balcony space and preserving the floor and the auditorium, the design locates four apartments at the back of the auditorium that offer spectacular views over the circle through nearly floor-to-ceiling windows.

The auditorium space, which includes restorations of old murals and other architectural details, also features natural lighting from the original Palladian windows, which at one time were bricked over.

On a tour of the building, Bill Walker, vice president of Housing Initiatives, pointed out some of the adaptations necessary to fit 44 apartments into the old high school while preserving the original wide hallways, entrance stairway and skylights, with suitably energy-efficient provisions.

Another four units, and a new entrance, are in an addition at the back of the building, which also allows direct access through an elevator to the auditorium. The old main entrance, which opens directly onto the circle, was unsuitable for the building’s new purpose.

Rents are $700 a month for the Flatiron’s prevailing one-bedroom units, and a bit higher for a limited number of two-bedroom units. There are community laundry and recreational facilities, and the ambience of the old high school will be re-created in a library featuring some of the original chalkboards and bookcases.

Some 60 to 75 construction workers from Ledgewood Construction of South Portland and various subcontractors are now on site. The $11 million project is financed with help from state and federal historic preservation tax credits and subsidies from Maine State Housing, which rated it as its top-ranked project two years ago.

Taylor says construction became possible through initial financing from Bank of America in San Francisco. The city also played a part.

Augusta is forgoing all the property taxes from both the Flatiron building and the old Hodgkins Junior High School, now about $50,000, through a 30-year TIF agreement.

The city was “glad to do so,” says City Manager Bill Bridgeo. “It was an important part of making the numbers work,” he says. The city conveyed both buildings for a token $1 payment.

Fewer students, more seniors

There was a much quicker turnaround for the city at the old Hodgkins school, which closed two years ago and was mothballed after the junior high students were relocated to the new high school.

Amanda Bartlett had become executive director of the Augusta Housing Authority a year ago and found that Augusta was one of only three public housing agencies in Maine that didn’t own real estate or finance any projects on its own.

Bartlett decided to explore changing that, and asked Portland developer Kevin Bunker of Developers Collaborative to take a look at the Hodgkins building.

“At first I thought, like everybody else, that the answer was to tear down the building and start over,” Bunker says. “But then we got interested in the possibilities.”

Hodgkins, built in 1958, looks like a lot of schools from the baby boom era, with several wings and a flat roof. It was built when enrollments statewide were rapidly expanding, for a school population that peaked at 275,000 and has since declined to less than 200,000. Though the classrooms are on different levels, all the entrances are at grade, meaning no elevator would be necessary.

Bunker also called in Amy Cole Ives of Sutherland Conservation and Consulting in Augusta, who discovered that Hodgkins was the last school built as part of a post-war master plan for the city. On that basis, it was certified for the National Register of Historic Places, and qualified for the same tax credits as the Flatiron building. The Hodgkins project also topped the latest list at Maine State Housing for subsidized apartment units.

The reasons, Bartlett says, include the comprehensive financing plan, cooperation from the city, and a location near a variety of services, from health care to groceries.

Both projects, Cynthia Taylor says, are close to Bangor Street businesses, and the proximity of the Hannaford store, within a few hundred feet of the Flatiron, is key. “Having access to a grocery store daily helps keep people independent longer, especially when they no longer have their own car,” she says.

Bus service at both sites will provide links to the new hospital in North Augusta, plus other services around town.

Creating a community

The Hodgkins conversion will provide 47 apartments, with 20% of the total reserved for homeless veterans, under the agreement with Maine State Housing. The $8.7 million cost works out to $185,000 per unit, significantly less than some projects approved before the recession.

Bunker says that, on the surface, costs of such building conversions “may seem pretty expensive,” but “there are so many benefits to reusing these old buildings.” They begin with the central location, which typically involves higher prices for any project, and the community cohesion that well-designed housing provides.

Says Taylor, “These are not just buildings where people happen to live. They create communities, where people can interact as they wish and when they wish. They provide opportunities you’re not going to find in housing that’s scattered across the landscape.”

Bill Bridgeo is happy to have two old schools off the municipal property inventory, and he’s even more pleased about how the new uses will strengthen the city’s urban core. “Neighborhood compatibility was a big factor with the Hodgkins project,” he says. “Houses literally surround the school, so there weren’t a lot of uses that would work.”

Because the senior units require less parking, the city is able to retain the athletic fields attached to the Hodgkins School, and the since-demolished Williams School, as public space.

Public amenities at the Flatiron building include a “vest pocket” park on the Stone Street side that will feature a garden space and ornamental trees.

Augusta will soon have two new housing projects that would be an asset to any Maine community, with nearly $20 million in investment and several hundred construction jobs.

Yet Amanda Bartlett sounds a sobering note in saying that, over the past two years, Augusta has lost 100 rental housing units to fires and condemnations.

“Like most Maine cities, we have old housing stock that hasn’t been maintained very well,” she says. Direct private investment is unlikely to fill the gap, she says. “Developers tell us that the costs of construction can’t be recouped in the rents people in the area can afford to pay.”

Yet aging homeowners from around the region would like to live downtown for all the reasons that the Flatiron and Hodgkins projects are expected to be fully occupied, in short order.

Part of the answer, she says, is to try to do a better job of conserving housing, helping landlords with maintenance through programs designed for that purpose. The federal budget share, which reduced Section 8 vouchers sharply after the “sequester” and its aftermath, doesn’t seem likely to rebound any time soon, she says.

“The need is there,” Bartlett says. “We have to be looking for new ways to fill it.”

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