LEWISTON — A plan to redevelop the former Martel Elementary School into senior housing will not move forward, and city officials are considering other options, including a sale to developer David Gendron.

In a memo to the Planning Board, city staff said the City Council recently chose not to renew an option agreement with Lewiston Housing and Avesta Housing, which had previously planned to redevelop the former school into 44 units of senior housing.

The city entered into a two-year option agreement with Lewiston Housing in 2020, but city staff said the council decided to “explore other options” due to uncertainty around new affordable housing development.

While the City Council memo said that “for a variety of reasons, largely related to impacts of the pandemic,” Lewiston Housing was “not able to move forward with their redevelopment plans,” a Lewiston Housing official said Monday the decision not to move forward was not theirs.

The former Martel Elementary School at East Avenue and Lisbon Street in Lewiston was slated to become senior housing, but officials are now fielding other options. Sun Journal 2019 photo

A year ago, officials from Avesta Housing said the project was moving forward after securing key financing. At the time, Catherine Elliot, senior development officer for Avesta, said the project had received an affordable housing program award and the group was trying to nail down an updated timeline.

The project had an estimated cost of $12 million, with some design renderings already complete. According to Lewiston Housing, it would have provided 44 homes to seniors earning less than 50% or 60% area median income, with 23 units using “project based vouchers allowing seniors to pay 30% of their adjusted monthly gross income towards rent.”

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The city had also been working with Lewiston Housing and Avesta toward the first phase of redevelopment in the Choice Neighborhoods initiative.

Now, officials are considering selling the property to Gendron, who responded to the city’s original request-for-proposals in 2019. The Planning Board was scheduled to discuss the options Monday but the meeting was canceled due to the winter storm.

The aged school at 860 Lisbon St. closed in 2019 and reverted to city control before the new Connors Elementary School opened.

According to Lincoln Jeffers, director of economic and community development, Gendron, president of Gendron & Gendron in Lewiston, has “continued to express his interest in acquiring the property,” and his 2019 offer of $400,000 for the property still stands.

Asked about the decision not to renew the agreement with Lewiston Housing, Jeffers said Monday that “with the uncertainty of securing low income housing tax credits, and the long lead time for multifamily housing construction attributable to the regulatory process if (low income housing tax credits) are awarded, supply chain issues, and (low income housing tax credits) construction costs often pushing beyond what (low income housing tax credits) can support, the council would like to explore other options.”

The council memo said Gendron would pay to demolish the building, and has asked that the city pay for asbestos abatement, and “disposal fees post-demolition.” It also states that while Gendron does not have a committed tenant for the space, “he is willing to limit uses to not include those that the council determines are unacceptable on the site.”

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City staff said that based on discussions with Gendron, the property may be developed as mixed use, with some market rate housing on the site.

Gendron has developed a number of industrial and commercial buildings throughout Lewiston, including the redevelopment of the former Promenade Mall at 855 Lisbon St., across from the Martel property.

Asked Monday, Mayor Carl Sheline said it’s “unfortunate” the city is not moving forward with the senior housing proposal. He said Lewiston Housing “moved forward in good faith and undoubtedly spent time and resources on the development plan.”

“Even in the best of times, getting a project together can be a multiyear process,” he said. “By not renewing the option, I’m concerned that this council is sending the wrong message to the business community and developers.”

Sheline also added that “while we need housing of all types and income levels here in Lewiston, we really need affordable housing for our seniors.”

In 2019, the council chose the Lewiston Housing proposal based on the community need for senior housing as well as the planned reuse of the building and potential for outdoor green space or a senior community center. At the time, officials said a feasibility study would need to be done to assess whether a community center could be part of the project.

Shelley Norton, deputy planning director, said the 3.2-acre parcel is in the office residential zone. During its recent work session this month, she said, members of the City Council and Planning Board agreed to rezone the property to the community business zone, which is likely to occur this spring.

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