AUBURN — A proposed zoning amendment could help move along redevelopment efforts for historic properties in the city, including a stalled project to reuse St. Louis Church. 

The amendment, which would allow the Planning Board to grant a special exception to certain property owners, will be discussed at a City Council workshop at 5:30 p.m. Monday.

Eric Cousens, deputy director of Economic and Community Development, said Friday that the “adaptive use ordinance” is designed to create flexibility in reusing some historic but idle properties. 

He said St. Louis Church, on Third Street in New Auburn, is a “perfect example” of the type of property the amendment is aimed at. The church is in a multi-family urban zone, which emphasizes residential uses given the surrounding neighborhood.

A memo to the City Council from City Planner Doug Greene states that Auburn’s zoning ordinance has “frustrated efforts to convert historic structures to new uses.”

He said buildings that have served important roles in the community are in danger of being demolished because of the use restrictions.


A group of investors who saved the church from almost-certain demolition in 2014 have struggled since acquiring the building due to the limited reuse options. Ideas for using the building for an arts performance or community space are not permitted in the zone. 

“What we’ve been hearing from people in the neighborhood and residents of Auburn in general is that this is a cultural gem of the community that we should try to save,” Cousens said. “The best way to save it is to make it economically viable.” 

Cousens said the church space is “just not well suited for only residential uses.” Those permitted now also include use as a museum, school or church. 

Noel Smith, president of Studio A Architecture in Lewiston, has been leading the redevelopment group at the church. In 2014, Smith and a few other local people formed the investment group Pilotage and bought the former St. Louis Church from the Catholic diocese for $75.

Smith said Friday that due to the restrictions, the group hasn’t been able to bring forward a concrete plan.

“It’s been frustrating,” he said, adding that the city has taken “quite a while” to work out the zoning amendment details.


Cousens said Smith and the group have been in on the conversations surrounding the zoning amendment, but it’s part of the city’s broader economic development efforts.

“Their situation certainly added some urgency to it, but it’s something we’ve been talking about for a number of years,” he said. “Our focus has shifted over the last few years, with more focus on the downtown and urban areas within the city instead of our industrial parks that we’ve traditionally focused on. This is another example.” 

The Planning Board has been discussing such a measure since 2015, with a previous draft ultimately not approved by the City Council. The second draft was compiled by the Planning Board late last year, which will hold a public hearing on the item Tuesday. 

In his memo, Greene said the ordinance will “increase the likelihood that Auburn’s historic buildings will be preserved and put to productive use.”

He said it would allow for uses that are not currently permitted, but that follow the objectives of the city’s 2011 Comprehensive Plan. 

According to Greene’s memo, a special exception must meet seven criteria in order to be approved by the Planning Board. Any applicant will have to “prove that the adaptive reuse will not be detrimental to the surrounding area and neighborhood.” 


“We need something we can fall back on to help save these buildings,” Councilor Leroy Walker said Friday.

Walker, the Ward 5 councilor from New Auburn, has been following the church redevelopment efforts and simultaneous effort to display the bells from the former church.

He said he hadn’t seen the zoning amendment proposal Friday, but acknowledged that there are barriers to redevelopment. 

“Right now, they’re pretty strict,” he said of the zoning restrictions. 

[email protected]

Members of the Maine Folque Co-op practice their music at St. Louis Church in Auburn last year. The building was purchased by a group of investors hoping to turn the space into an arts center, but the project has stalled. 

Comments are not available on this story.