A concept image of the proposed 35-unit housing project at Blake and Pine streets in Lewiston by architect Platz Associates. Image provided by City of Lewiston

LEWISTON — Petitioners looking to force a referendum to reconsider a rezoning for a 35-unit Avesta Housing project failed to gather enough signatures.

The petition was created by Planning Board member Benjamin Martin following the City Council’s decision to approve the rezoning in March, paving the way for the mixed-income development planned for a vacant lot on Blake and Pine streets.

Martin and the petitioners have argued against the city’s use of tax dollars for the project, and its potential impact on the school system. They had until the end of business hours Monday to turn in 973 signatures from registered Lewiston voters.

According to Martin, he and other volunteers managed to collect roughly 600 signatures, and when it became clear they would not reach the number needed, Martin notified the city clerk’s office that they would not be submitting the petition.

“We weren’t going to deliver anything unless we knew they were all there,” he said Tuesday. “Ultimately it came down to weather and time.”

Martin said there were only a few weekend days without rain during the 60-day effort. The group also collected signatures at the polls during the Lewiston school budget vote in May, but turnout was light.

The development by Avesta Housing and Community Concepts would redevelop the lots at 111 Blake St. and 82 Pine St. that were destroyed by fire in 2013. The 35 units would be a mixture of one-, two- and three-bedrooms. According to the proposal, seven units would be market-rate and 28 would be income-restricted to renters at 50% and 60% of the area’s median income.

The City Council voted 5-2 in a final reading in April 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.

However, in a news release announcing the petition effort in April, Martin and co-author Maura Murphy described the project as a “high-density, low-income, taxpayer-subsidized tenement.”

Martin was among two Planning Board members to vote against the rezoning. He has argued the project could result in sending 50 more students to Montello Elementary School, which is already overcrowded.

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 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. The rezoning allows a density of one unit per 400 square feet. Avesta argued that the property is roughly 120 feet from the Centreville district, which allows a similar density level.

An Avesta memo to city staff also argued that “numerous city documents, including the Comprehensive Plan and the work associated with Choice Neighborhoods, as well as a recent market study commissioned by the developer, substantiate the need for this type of housing in this area of Lewiston.”

Avesta is 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 are routinely used to finance affordable housing projects.

While opponents have pointed to a “limited return” for the tax dollars, Tom Platz, a developer whose firm is designing the building, told councilors that 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. Due to the environmental mitigation required at the site, he said it’s unlikely the lot could have been developed in a smaller fashion.

According to project details, construction on the site will include the removal of an abandoned underground storage tank and remediation of contaminated soils that resulted from the 2013 fires.

David Hediger, director of Planning and Code Enforcement, said that with the rezoning in place, Avesta must now receive development review approval from the Planning Board for its proposed site improvements.

The city has not yet received the site plan materials from Avesta, but Hediger said once a complete application is received, plans are typically scheduled for a public hearing before the board within 30 days.

The development review process is limited to the Planning Board and does not involve the council now that the rezoning has been approved. However, the tax-increment financing will go to the council for approval.

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