A recent concept design for the proposed development along Avon Street shows two, 105-unit buildings along the Androscoggin River, with a third, 35-unit building across Avon Street. (City of Lewiston)

LEWISTON — After receiving an earful from neighbors Monday, the Planning Board voted unanimously to send a favorable recommendation to the City Council for a zoning change that would allow 245 efficiency apartments on Avon Street.

The Massachusetts-based developer, Saxon Partners, is pursuing a contract rezoning for three properties off Avon Street, including the former site of Pineland Lumber Co. along the Androscoggin River. The developer would build market-rate efficiency apartments geared toward medical professionals working at the nearby Central Maine Medical Center.

Most of the public feedback Monday, coming from roughly a dozen residents, centered on the described business model of the development team, as well as concerns for parking and traffic.

Saxon is pursuing three such projects in Maine — in Augusta, Lewiston and Biddeford — but has yet to build one. At least a few residents said during the public hearing they are concerned that should the business model not hold up, the complex would be used for low-income apartments.

Matthew Roy, a resident of Winter Street, said his “main concern is that it will go to low-income housing,” and that in his attempts to rent to employees of the hospital, he has not been able to attract the kind of rents Saxon will be seeking.

Joseph Gerbe, who owns property on Cottage Street, said he has not heard of any agreement made with the hospital concerning attracting employees to the development. He asked if the developers were going on a “hope and prayer” that hospital employees were going to rent the units.

“Let’s call it what it is — an effort to get a developer what he needs,” he said. “I say allow him to build what he can under the current zoning.”

Donna Greene echoed the concern.

“We’ve heard little about why this model was chosen,” she said.

She said the apartments will likely be “transition housing” for many of the contract nurses or doctors that it might attract.

“I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the city to have that kind of development on the property,” she said. “We haven’t been given any evidence that proves this would be good.”

Brian Leahy, director of acquisitions for Saxon, attempted to reassure the public of the company’s development track record Monday, and Planning Board officials called the contract rezone a first step in a lengthy process.

Leahy said the developers have shown results in working directly with hospitals, with some hospitals establishing a relationship with Saxon. He said some have contracted directly with the group to provide housing to employees. He said talks with Central Maine Medical Center are “still early in the process.”

Ever since developers unveiled plans for the apartment complex this past fall, neighbors have questioned the proposal.

During an initial neighborhood meeting in October, residents in the area said they were concerned with the impact of the proposed project, despite the developers statements that the efficiency apartment complex would be built to accommodate mostly single people, many of them nurses.

The three properties, totaling 6.8 acres, would house a total of three buildings. On the larger riverfront land, the developer is proposing two, four-story buildings with 105 units each. Across the street there would be another building with 35 units.

Proponents argue that the project, with an estimated cost of between $30 million and $35 million, addresses the city’s comprehensive plan in seeking new and varying types of housing while adding to the city’s tax base.

Beckie Conrad, president of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said the Twin Cities are constantly looking to attract young professionals to “maintain a vibrant economy,” and the Saxon development could provide the opportunity to be apart of a walkable community along the riverfront.

Lincoln Jeffers, director of Economic and Community Development, said the project as proposed would result in about $775,000 in taxes annually, and would provide an easement for a second water connection to Lewiston as well as an easement for eventually extending the riverwalk.

Some residents are concerned that the level of parking proposed — at 1.1 spaces per unit, will not be sufficient, leading to people parking on Avon Street and the surrounding streets.

“There’s no way there’s enough parking there to do this,” another resident said, adding that he doesn’t believe employees will walk to the hospital. “When you have 250 apartments in back bay you’re gonna destroy the neighborhood. They’re pulling the wool over our eyes, no one’s going to walk.”

Planning officials said the development would include some improvements in the neighborhood, including new sidewalks along Avon and Holland streets, which connect the development to the hospital.

Asked about green space and recreation, the development team said the apartment complex will include indoor and outdoor community space, including an indoor fitness center and fire pits and barbecue areas outside.

Roy added that the shortest route to the hospital is West Bates Street, but no improvements have been proposed there.

Arlene Duclos, who lives on Avon Street, also had concerns for the project, But, she said, “I am excited about one thing. We never had a sidewalk on Avon Street, so that’s novel for us I guess.”

The City Council will likely take up first reading of the contract rezoning Tuesday, April 2.

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