The empty lot at the corner of Blake and Pine streets in Lewiston, where several buildings were destroyed by fire in 2013, may soon be developed

LEWISTON — Opponents of a proposed affordable housing project on Blake and Pine streets plan to circulate a petition in an effort to overturn the City Council’s recent decision to rezone the property.

The leaders of the effort, Planning Board member Benjamin Martin and resident Maura Murphy, issued a statement Thursday detailing their plan.

Martin was among two members of the Planning Board to vote against the rezoning in March, arguing against the city’s use of tax dollars for the project, and its potential impact on the school system.

Avesta Housing, 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 news release Thursday from Martin and Murphy described the project as a “high-density, low-income, taxpayer-subsidized tenement,” and claims “Lewiston voters are beginning to question the decisions being made by the city in their names.”

The City Council voted 5-2 in a final reading last week to approve the rezoning, which will allow for higher density on the property. During the first reading in late March, a large majority of the public comment was in favor of the project. Proponents told officials that 35 new units are sorely needed in a neighborhood still struggling with substandard housing, lead poisoning and low vacancy rates.

For the past six years, the lot at Blake and Pine streets has been empty following a string of fires in 2013. Since then, the city has either condemned or demolished hundreds more units because of safety concerns, but the effort has also cut into the available housing downtown.

The two properties, totaling 0.33 acres, were 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.

The two city councilors who voted against the proposal — Michael Marcotte and Zack Pettengill — echoed Martin’s concerns about the project’s limited return on tax dollars and potential impact on schools.

“This rezone triples the density of the property and is the equivalent of ‘warehouse housing,’ which would shoehorn 30 to 50 children into a one-third-acre lot,” Martin said in the written statement.

“The project could easily send 50 more students to Montello Elementary School, which has absolutely no room left for such an influx.”

Project officials have estimated about 80 people would live in the apartment complex. It would include 15 one-bedroom units, 14 two-bedroom units and six three-bedroom units.

The building, designed by Platz Associates of Auburn, would be three floors, with a lower-level parking area.

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.

Murphy and others have argued that the project only adds more nontaxable property to Lewiston.

“More than 30% of Lewiston’s land is already nontaxable due to the continuing expansion of nonprofits,” she said. “In light of this, why are city councilors doubling down on new, TIF-based agreements with developers, who will pay only half their fair share of taxes for the next 20 years?”

In March, Platz said the expected return of $25,000 a year is more than if a smaller project were 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 is unlikely the lot could have been developed in a smaller fashion.

The petition circulators have until June 8 to turn in 973 signatures from registered Lewiston voters. If successful, the rezoning would appear as a city referendum.

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