Nearly 800 new apartments are proposed or being built in Biddeford and Saco, an area that has become an increasingly popular destination in recent years as Biddeford’s downtown is revitalized and high rental prices push people out of the Portland housing market.

Demand for rental units is at an all-time high in Biddeford, where city officials say they continue to see strong interest from developers who want to build new apartment buildings or convert old buildings to rental housing. Existing multi-family buildings are selling at higher prices than ever as people look to invest in the city and improve the quality of older apartment units.

In Biddeford, city officials are vetting proposals for a mixed-use residential and commercial project at the Five Points Shopping Center that would add 190 or more rental units and a project to convert the former Saco Lowell mill building into 100 new apartments. The conversion of the Lincoln Mill into 148 luxury lofts in downtown Biddeford is nearing completion, with occupancy expected by this summer.

And in Saco, officials are considering a proposal for 336 market-rate units in an apartment complex that would be the city’s largest. That proposal has drawn opposition from neighbors concerned about the impact of the large-scale project on local neighborhoods.

“The development community has picked up that apartments are real hot right now,” said Saco city planner Bob Hamblen. “I don’t see any end in sight at the moment.”

The intense demand for both apartments and single-family homes in Biddeford has prompted the City Council to spend the past few months looking at housing issues, including affordability, density and incentives for developers. Late last year, the council for the first time ever adopted housing goals to guide policy decisions that city leaders hope will provide more housing across the housing continuum, from low-income apartments to larger single-family homes to senior housing.

The goals are to increase homeownership within the community from 48 percent to 51 percent by 2026; create at least 400 “next home” opportunities by 2026; create at least 200 first-time homeownership opportunities affordable to household between 80 and 120 percent of median income; create or preserve 90 units of affordable housing per year for five years targeted to serve the 40 to 80 percent median income community; and rehabilitate at least 65 rental units per year for the next three years so the units are healthy homes and lead-free.

Biddeford is also working on a new Comprehensive Plan, a process that is expected to look at how to integrate a mix of building types, uses and densities while preserving natural resources.

The focus on housing in Biddeford comes eight years after the closure of the Maine Energy Recovery Co. in downtown Biddeford, a turning point for the city. The removal of the trash incinerator in the mill district spurred millions of dollars of new investment as developers transformed old mill buildings into residential and commercial spaces, new shops and restaurants opened along Main Street, and the city became a more desirable place to live and visit.

Market rents in Biddeford have risen steeply since 2012, from $863 per month for a two-bedroom apartment that year to $1,211 a month in 2020, a 40 percent increase in eight years. Since 2012, more than 800 multi-unit buildings have been sold and now fetch upwards of $94,000 per unit, up from less than $53,000 per unit three years ago, according to an analysis from the city’s assessing department.

City officials say 40 percent of Biddeford’s renter households pay 35 percent or more of their income for housing. It’s generally accepted that no more than 30 percent of household income should be used for housing.

“Biddeford today is fast losing affordability to those that came to the community when MERC still existed. For those that chose Biddeford simply because it was cheap space, the increased rents in the last three years in particular has outpaced their means,” City Manager Jim Bennett recently wrote in a memo to city councilors. “Some of the premier downtown rents are now exceeding $2,000 per month. These units are not affordable for a so-called blue-collared resident.”

City leaders say the ongoing revitalization of the downtown and other market forces have combined to accelerate housing costs in the community over the past three years. Even as the city has become a more desirable place to live, housing prices are still lower than in the Portland area, drawing people to Biddeford who are experiencing the pressure of the Greater Portland housing crisis, Bennett said.

According to the Maine Housing Authority’s rental affordability index, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Portland-South Portland housing market is $1,650, nearly $600 higher than renters can afford based on median income. The median renter household income in that area is $43,747, short of the $66,000 income needed to afford that rent.

Developer Tim Harrington of BVH Biddeford LLC has proposed major renovations to the Five Points Shopping Center, which would include upgrades to retail space, transforming the center into a high-rise apartment building and adding garden apartments nearby on land that is currently vacant. Courtesy of BVH Biddeford LLC

The hundreds of apartments proposed or under construction in Biddeford could ease some of the strain on the local rental market.

The Biddeford City Council and Planning Board are considering a contract zone that would allow developer Tim Harrington to convert the Five Points Shopping Center into a “live, work” model, with a combination of commercial businesses and rental units. The preliminary plan calls for a six-story building with 150 market-rate apartments above the current shopping center. Four new buildings would include garden apartments, possibly for people 55 and older.

A contract zone is needed for that project because residential uses currently are not allowed in that location on Route 111.

Harrington and Chinburg Properties are in the process of transforming the former Lincoln Mill into The Lincoln Lofts, a $50 million project that includes 148 luxury lofts, a restaurant, rooftop pool and 33-room boutique hotel. The lofts will open beginning in July and the hotel rooms are expected to be done by spring 2022. The pool was lifted onto the roof by a crane last week.

Also expected to move ahead in Biddeford is the conversion of the Saco Lowell property on Elm Street into 100 market-rate apartments. The City Council in January approved a Tax Increment Financing proposal and joint development agreement with Port Property Management, which purchased the property last year. The value of the property after it is redeveloped is expected to increase from $534,000 to $14 million, according to city officials.

In addition to the large-scale projects, more people have been buying older existing apartment buildings and investing in improvements or adding new units in downtown buildings. A 1960s apartment building that sold two years ago for $2 million recently sold again for $5.5 million, said Mathew Eddy, Biddeford’s planning and development director.

Five years after going public with plans to renovate Biddeford’s Lincoln Mill, a Kennebunkport developer is starting work to renovate the building into a hotel and luxury apartments. This artist’s rendering shows a rooftop swimming pool and bar. Rendering by E. Michael Lewis

“That is an amazing statistic that hasn’t been seen in Biddeford,” he said. “We were just marveling a year ago when units for multi-family were starting to sell at just over $100,000. Now we’re well above that. The market is very hot right now.”

Bennett says that while everyone expects a housing slowdown at some point, there is “no tangible sign that a downturn will be happening in the next six to 12 months in southern Maine.”

While much of the rental housing development in northern York County has been concentrated in Biddeford in recent years, Saco is starting to see more interest in apartments in the downtown area.

In the first 16 years after Hamblen became Saco’s city planner in 2000, he saw a single apartment project come before the planning board: a five-unit apartment building off Ocean Park Road. In the last few years, 150 apartments were built in Saco Mill #4, a former mill on Saco Island. The city is now reviewing proposals for 12 new apartment units in an existing building on Main Street and the 336 new units proposed by the John Flatley Co. in a neighborhood currently made up primarily of single-family homes.

“It’s interesting to me that for the first 15 years of the 2000s, apartments were persona non grata,” Hamblen said. “How they have taken off in the last few years is a remarkable about-face.”

Lincoln Mill in Biddeford, before construction began last fall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The John Flatley Co. has proposed a seven-building complex with luxury market-rate apartments that would rent for between $1,300 and $1,800 a month. The apartments are targeted to 25- to 35-year-olds and empty nesters, according to the developer.

The project is currently undergoing a master planned development review, a process Saco put in place in 2013 to look at the impacts of larger projects before they undergo traditional site plan review by the planning board. The master plan application will be considered by the Saco Planning Board at its meeting on Tuesday. If that is approved, the developers are expected to submit a site plan and subdivision application to the board, Hamblen said.

The project between Lincoln and Bradley streets has drawn opposition from neighbors who formed the group Save Saco Neighborhoods to fight the development. They say the project would dramatically increase traffic and add students to crowded local schools. Neighbors have also raised concerns about the proposed 52-foot height of the buildings and environmental impact on vernal pools and wetlands on the 57-acre parcel.


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