LEWISTON — Just about four years ago, Craig Saddlemire was one of dozens of people looking on in horror as a series of fires destroyed five buildings between Pierce and Bartlett streets.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday for the revamped Pierce Place complex, which features 29 new units of affordable housing along with 33 renovated units, Saddlemire was visibly emotional as he recapped how the fires impacted the neighborhood. Hundreds were immediately displaced.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, in terms of the amount of people on the streets, the camradery among neighbors and the fear,” he said about the fires.
He, along with a number of other speakers Wednesday, also spoke of the long and complicated process it took to get to a ribbon-cutting ceremony — and each pointed to the same driving force for the project, developer Phyllis St. Laurent.
According to the speakers, she was tenacious and unwavering in her effort to replace the destroyed buildings, even as the project faced multiple hurdles, including public opposition and financial questions.
When the city proposed gifting the land to the development team, a citizens’ initiative was formed, which successfully blocked it. The group, made up of local landlords, objected to the involvement of Volunteers of America, a development group from outside Maine. St. Laurent withdrew the plan in September 2013, but returned in 2014 with project manager Jim Hatch (of the Maine group Developers Collaborative) onboard. When the city put the land out to bid, St. Laurent was the sole bidder.
On Wednesday, Hatch said there was a great effort following the fires to not lose the dedicated housing vouchers attached to the units in the downtown neighborhood. He said the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which issues the Section 8 vouchers, remained patient and helpful as the development team waded through the redevelopment effort.
“Our partners stuck with us,” he said, listing off those involved in the project.
City Council President Kristen Cloutier, who spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony a year ago, said St. Laurent and Hatch “shouldered the tasks (of redevelopment) with dedication, tenacity and a never-take-no-for-an-answer attitude.”
The three new buildings were built by local contractor Hebert Construction, replacing the ones lost. According to a news release, the new buildings feature 24/7 fire alarm monitoring, and twice the land area with on-site parking and green space. They have amenities, including laundry and common rooms. The redevelopment also included renovations of the units not lost to fire.
Saddlemire, the organizer for the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, also said Pierce Place is an example to the city on how to approach new housing. He said Raise-Op believes housing is a human right as well as a public health issue.
Saddlemire said four years ago, the three fires occurring in a span of a week all started in nearby abandoned buildings and spread to the Pierce apartments.
“This tragedy brought a lot of issues to the surface in Lewiston,” he told the audience, which he said sparked a divisive discussion on “whose problem it was” to address unsafe housing conditions in the city.
John Gallagher, director of Maine State Housing Authority, which was also a partner in the project, said he’s proud that after residents were displaced, the developers worked to relocate people and ensure low-income residents could retain their Section 8 vouchers to obtain housing elsewhere.
Many of the residents have returned to Pierce Place.
Bill Shanahan, president of Northern New England Housing Investment Fund, which provided funding for the project, also commented on the perseverance by St. Laurent and the development team.
“I can recall a conversation I had with (St. Laurent) in my office, and I said, ‘Do you really want to do this?’ You deserve an immense amount of credit,” he told her.
The Section 8 vouchers from HUD help create affordable rents, Shanahan said. He said 60 percent of residents earn less than $20,000.
He also rebuffed criticism often directed at affordable housing projects, stating, “Low-income tax credit developments help revitalize neighborhoods and reduce violent crime.”
In the news release, Hatch said some 200 apartment units were lost due to fires or demolition in the neighborhood since 2012. In that same time frame, the city has increased its code enforcement staff, leading to more code violations and condemned buildings.
“The need for this type of affordable housing is critical in Lewiston,” Hatch said.
“This is one project,” Saddlemire said during his remarks, “but I call on this community to make sure that every family, every veteran, every worker, every child has a safe home.”