BIDDEFORD — In the next few months, city officials in Biddeford and Saco will review plans for large-scale projects that could transform riverfront properties in each city with new housing and retail space.
The projects in York County’s largest cities come at a time when officials in Biddeford and Saco say they have been issuing building permits for commercial and residential projects at an unprecedented rate, and are constantly fielding calls from developers interested in investing in the twin cities.
“The market is hot. It’s very, very busy,” said Mathew Eddy, Biddeford’s director of planning and development.
The interest is fueled at least in part by a tight market that has forced buyers, renters and developers out of Portland and into other southern Maine cities such as Biddeford, Saco and Westbrook, where prices are lower and there is space available for development.
The pressure is reflected in a 33 percent surge in the number of building permits granted over the past five years in the cities of York and Cumberland counties. Westbrook and Biddeford have seen the biggest spike – 88 percent and 60 percent, respectively.
And the surge is not showing any signs of slowing.
Developers Jim Brady and Brian Eng are meeting with Biddeford city officials to discuss redeveloping the 8½-acre property where a trash incinerator once stood. If the project comes to fruition, city officials say it could transform the area, contribute to the “Biddesance” that is reviving the former mill town and add to the city’s building boom.
In Saco, which has seen a 26 percent increase in permits, developer Bernie Saulnier is seeking city approval for an ambitious $40 million project on the eastern side of Saco Island that would include a marina, apartments, restaurant and boutique hotel. Positioned at the gateway of the city, the project would be built on the last undeveloped section of the island that sits in the Saco River between the two cities.
Westbrook has seen large-scale residential housing developments and commercial projects, including a $62 million expansion at Idexx.
Now, a Massachusetts builder plans to develop a shopping center and 750 apartments on land surrounding the former Pike Industries quarry. And Daniel Stevenson, Westbrook’s director of economic development, said he regularly meets with businesses and developers interested in moving to Westbrook. People seem drawn to the city with 17,000 residents because it is close to Portland but is still relatively affordable and has a small-town feel, he said.
COMMUNITIES ‘CHECK ALL THE BOXES’
In southern York County, the city of Sanford, with 20,000 residents, saw an 11.6 percent increase in building permits issued from 2013 to 2017. But the number of building permits has been consistently among the highest for all five years and jumped 27 percent from 2016 to 2017. In the first half of this year, the city issued 768 building permits, putting Sanford on track to approve more building permits than the 901 permits issued last year.
South Portland, a city of 25,000 residents, recorded a 17 percent increase in building permits from 2013 to 2017, according to data provided by the city.
Portland has been in a growth pattern for years, with high demand on residential and commercial property and a short supply of land that hasn’t been developed. In the past five years, the city of 67,000 people has seen a 35 percent increase in building permits issued for projects ranging from apartment buildings to subdivisions to downtown hotels.
“As Portland continues to grow and do well, people have no choice but to look elsewhere,” said Justin Lamontagne, a partner with NAI The Dunham Group. “Those communities (like Biddeford, Saco and Westbrook) check all the boxes on what people are looking for.”
While Biddeford and Saco are not the only communities in southern Maine experiencing a building boom, there are factors that are unique to the twin cities, according to municipal officials and developers. The two cities straddle the Saco River and are the metropolitan center of York County, while also only 30 to 40 minutes from Portland.
Biddeford has more than 21,000 residents and Saco has about 18,000.
The availability of land for development and real estate prices well below those in Portland are key factors driving people to Biddeford and Saco. The closure of the Maine Energy trash incinerator in downtown Biddeford in 2012 also helped fuel interest in the cities and led to multimillion-dollar projects to redevelop former textile mills and fill some empty Main Street storefronts.
“Saco and Biddeford seem to be welcoming development,” said Brit Vitalius, founder of the Vitalius Real Estate Group and president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association. “I think (the combined metro region) is on its way to becoming its own center of gravity. It has its own attractions, not just as an alternative to Portland.”
BIDDEFORD’S STOCK UP SINCE 2012
Biddeford Code Enforcement Officer Roby Fecteau arrives at the office early, when City Hall is empty and Main Street is quiet, to pore over building plans. To keep up with the rapid rate of new development in the city, his office approves at least three new permit applications every day.
“It’s the busiest I’ve seen it in the 17 years I’ve been here,” Fecteau said. “The days go by fast.”
In the next few months, Biddeford officials will consider a proposal for a 240-unit apartment complex on Barra Road, the latest proposed large-scale project designed to address the demand for rental units in the city. The apartments would be built on land between Route 11 and the Maine Turnpike, close to the hospital, medical offices and shopping centers.
City officials also will continue to meet with Brady and Eng, who are interested in developing the former Maine Energy trash incinerator property, an 8½-acre riverfront parcel next to Lincoln Mill and other mill buildings that have been renovated for housing and businesses.
Downtown, work is expected to begin soon on the Lincoln Mill, where developer Tim Harrington plans to invest $40 million to build 181 residential units in a building that will also include a restaurant, fitness center and rooftop pool. A few blocks away, the Pepperell Mill Campus – where developer Doug Sanford’s company is redeveloping 1 million square feet of former textile mill space – is continuing to expand with new businesses and apartments.
“People are discovering us,” said Eddy, Biddeford’s director of planning and development. “We seem to be on the right track. We just need to keep the momentum going.”
Much of the residential growth seems to be fueled by an increasing interest in homeownership, millennials moving to the city and the availability of affordable housing compared with cities like Portland, Eddy said.
“People can still find housing for a reasonable price,” he said.
In Biddeford, the average cost to rent a two-bedroom apartment with utilities included is $1,009, according to data compiled by the city. In the mill district, where hundreds of apartments have been built in recent years, rents start at $895 and go up to $2,200 for a luxury unit. By comparison, the average advertised rent for a two-bedroom in Portland was $1,605 in late 2017, according to a Portland Press Herald analysis. Apartments in a new building on Anderson Street in the city’s East Bayside neighborhood range from $1,200 for a studio to $2,200 for a two-bedroom unit.
When it comes to commercial development, there is just as much interest in Biddeford, according to city officials. Biddeford’s business and industrial parks are full, and developers are expressing interest in the River Dam Mill, the city’s last vacant mill, Eddy said. He has also heard from developers interested in investing in the Saco Lowell Mill on Elm Street, though he said it’s too early to disclose details.
“It’s not minimal interest,” Eddy said.
City officials, developers and investors say the interest in investing in downtown Biddeford increased dramatically after the City Council voted in 2012 to buy the property where the Maine Energy trash incinerator was located.
“That was really a game changer for that area,” said Lamontagne of NAI The Dunham Group.
Mike Eon of Biddeford-based Mike Eon Associates is representing the developers behind the Barra Road proposal and has worked in real estate and developing in the area for 40 years. When Maine Energy closed, officials predicted they’d see more growth in the city. Eon said he is glad to see that prediction coming true.
“What I saw as the biggest deterrent to growth in the twin cities was the Maine Energy plant,” he said. “Now that it is gone, people realize there’s opportunity here.”
OUTLOOK BRIGHT ACROSS THE RIVER
In Saco, there has been growth in all sectors, with a spate of new commercial projects proposed or underway and an increase in building permits issued for single-family homes. The city recorded $38 million in new construction value in 2017 and has already seen $37 million in new construction through the end of last month.
“We are going to surpass last year’s total construction value within the next couple days,” said City Administrator Kevin Sutherland.
The city has issued building permits for more than 51 new single-family homes since January, closing in on the 60 total issued in 2017. This year, city officials expect to see 24 new housing units going into the former Notre Dame Church and construction of a 72-unit multifamily housing development on Portland Road.
But the majority of the $37 million in new construction – about $21 million – is connected to commercial activity across the city, said Code Enforcement Officer Dick Lambert. That includes a new truck terminal for A. Duie Pyle, a $300,000 renovation of a new space for yarn distributor Quince and Co., and an addition at Garland Manufacturing on Industrial Park Road.
Saulnier’s large-scale Saco Island project – “The Waters” – began working its way through the planning process last month. Saulnier, who used to summer in Saco and now lives in the city, said it was a natural choice for his project because of its proximity to the ocean, downtown, the Amtrak train and larger cities like Portland and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
“Not everybody can afford Portland pricing, so where do you go next?” Saulnier said. “The cities of Saco and Biddeford have a lot to offer and they keep continuing to grow.”
City officials believe the interest in Saco is strong because of the natural amenities such as beaches and walking trails, the quality of schools and the proximity to Portland, Portsmouth and Boston. Property values are also holding well in Saco, Lambert said.
“They know if they invest in Saco, they’re not going to lose their investment if they plan right and do it well,” he said.
But the increase in building activity hasn’t come without growing pains. Sutherland said his staff hasn’t increased enough to handle the number of requests for permits and inspections, but that employees are doing their best to work with the resources available. The number of complaints – ranging from noise at construction sites to questions about whether work is being done without a permit – has jumped 66 percent in the past five years.
“It’s hard to keep up with at times,” Lambert said.
Sutherland, who has been city administrator for three years, sees the development activity as good for the city despite those growing pains and doesn’t expect interest in the city to taper off anytime soon.
“When I first came here, I said Saco is Maine’s best-kept secret,” he said. “Now the secret is out.”
Construction crews work last month on a three-story, climate-controlled storage facility on Industrial Road in Saco. The city of about 18,000 residents has issued building permits for more than 51 single-family homes since January, on track to eclipse last year’s total of 60. Property values are also holding well. (Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald)