The empty lot at Blake and Pine streets in Lewiston where several buildings were destroyed by a fire in 2013 could soon be developed. (Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham)

LEWISTON — A housing development bringing 35 units to the downtown cleared a major hurdle Tuesday when the City Council gave initial approval for developers to build more units than allowed in the residential zone. 

For the past six years, the lot at Blake and Pine streets has been empty following a string of fires in 2013.

A proposal by Avesta Housing has attracted strong support and some criticism.

Following a lengthy session of public comment Tuesday, filled with mostly support for the project based on Lewiston’s shortage of safe and affordable housing, the City Council voted 4-2 to approve the contract rezoning in a first reading.

Avesta, an affordable housing developer based in Portland, is proposing to build the apartment complex at 111 Blake St. and 82 Pine St. According to the proposal, seven units would be market-rate and 28 would be income-restricted to renters at 50 percent and 60 percent of the area’s median income.

The building, designed by Platz Associates of Auburn, would be three floors, with a lower-level parking area. It would include 15 one-bedroom units, 14 two-bedroom units and six three-bedroom units, according to the proposal.

While the project gained the support of the Planning Board, members of the public attending the Planning Board meetings said they were concerned about the level of density proposed, which is the main reason for the contract rezoning.

The two properties, totaling 0.33 acres, are in the Downtown Residential zone, which only allows a density of one unit per 1,250 square feet of lot area. Avesta is pursuing a density of one unit per 400 square feet. Part of Avesta’s request, and the subsequent support from city staff, comes from the fact that the property is roughly 120 feet from the Centreville district, which allows a similar density level.

On Tuesday, a large number of people spoke in favor of the proposal, telling officials 35 new units are sorely needed in a neighborhood still struggling with substandard housing, lead poisoning and low vacancy rates.

Lewiston resident Jeanna Morin told the council she has been living in transitional housing because she cannot find available apartments with affordable rent in Lewiston. Others said the quality of the project will raise the image of the neighborhood and provide tax revenue to the city on property that otherwise would likely remain vacant.

Councilors Michael Marcotte and Zack Pettengill voted against the rezoning, arguing the project uses tax dollars for limited return and could place further burden on a Lewiston school system that is already bursting at the seams.

Project officials are seeking financial assistance through affordable housing tax-increment financing, and $325,000 in federal HOME funds, a Department of Housing and Urban Development program. Both sources of funding are routinely used to finance affordable housing projects.

Officials have projected that about 80 residents would live in the complex, and Marcotte argued that number could include between 30 and 50 children.

Shanna Cox, who spoke in favor of the project, said the lot is directly behind her home. She said she welcomes new and affordable housing in the neighborhood, and that there are many families already living in Lewiston who need safe housing.

A few people referenced a large waiting list of people in the Lewiston area seeking affordable housing, as well as vacancy rates that have dropped as the market has tightened and the city has demolished more than 250 units deemed unsafe.

Pettengill, voting against the rezoning, said the project will not do anything to repair the housing stock in the downtown. He said his fear is that people will move into the new property, leaving new people to move into older buildings with lead issues.

Tom Platz, whose firm designed the building, said that by building new housing in Lewiston, it will create competition that will drive landlords to update or remediate lead from older buildings.

Councilor Michel Lajoie said he was on the fence about the proposal given its limited return on tax dollars, but ultimately voted in favor.

Platz said the expected return of $25,000 a year is more than if a smaller project was built there. He said with only 10 units, it would be roughly one-third the return. But, he added, given the environmental mitigation required at the site, it’s unlikely the lot could have been developed in a smaller fashion.

Amy Smith, a downtown landlord, said referring to Pettengill’s comments that it is cheaper now for landlords to rehab buildings, but when the cost of lead abatement is added, it is not.

She and others said the city needs to embrace all aspects of housing projects, not just building new, but said “there are tons of people who are desperately looking for housing.”

If the rezoning is approved in a final reading, the project will return to the Planning Board for a site plan review. Then the council would consider a development agreement with the details of the tax-increment financing.

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