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September 1, 2017 | last updated September 1, 2017 2:07 pm

Deal for Saco Island land sets stage for $40M project

Courtesy / Saulnier Development
Courtesy / Saulnier Development
This concept plan for Saco Island would include residential units, commercial space, a hotel and outdoor uses, all on nearly six acres.

SACO — The purchase of 5.84 acres at 110 Main St. on the east side of Saco Island is the next step toward the $40 million development of the vacant land for residential units, commercial space, a hotel, open space, a riverwalk and a marina.

J&B Partners LLC purchased the site for $1.5 million from Saco Island East LLC, in a deal that closed Aug. 18. Jeff Clark and Mindy Sanderson of The Maine Real Estate Network represented the buyer and Dan Greenstein and Chris Paszyc of CBRE|The Boulos Co. represented the seller.

The LLC includes developer Bernie Saulnier Jr., who heads Saulnier Development in Saco. Saulnier Development has offices in Maine and Massachusetts and its projects range from renovations of historic mills to loft condominiums and custom multi-million dollar residential construction.

Saulnier said brokers Clark and Sanderson approached him about a possible deal 14 months ago. According to LoopNet, the property was originally permitted for 30-unit residential condominium development, a 2,050-square-foot marina clubhouse and a 69-slip marina. That project was drawn up in 2006 but was stopped by the recession, said Saulnier.

Saco Island is in the Saco River, bisected by Main Street, which travels from Saco on the northeast to Biddeford on the southwest side.

In considering the project, Saulnier said, "The city asked me to relook at the project, think about density and about giving something back to the city" including public access and a riverwalk that would connect with the city's existing riverwalk, Saulnier said.

The design now includes two residential buildings, one with 60 units and the other with 40 units, a riverwalk, an acre of open space for events, a restaurant, and other commercial space.

He also reached out to potential hotel developers. He said his firm is now close to signing with Portland developer Jim Brady, who has expressed interest in building a boutique hotel with 50 guest rooms.

Saulnier and his team, which includes architect David Lloyd and engineer Stephen Bushey, have been holding community meetings on the project to get public input. Saulnier said he anticipates receiving city approvals by the end of 2017.

"We'd like to break ground in early summer of 2018," he said.

He said Brady would start on the construction of the hotel in tandem with Saulnier beginning the residential construction. He said the team is leaning toward condominiums, rather than apartments.

"There's not a lot of condos in the area, and the product we're building will be like nothing else around," he said. "We feel strongly that the condo market is the way to go. But if the market changes and we have to go toward rental, we could."

The hotel is planned for the luxury market, with rooms expected to be in the high $200 to low $300 per night. The residential units would have perks like sweeping river views, underground parking and elevators, with prices starting in the high $200,000s, with an average of $300,000 to $450,000. The buildings will be five to six stories, and the units will range from 700 to 1,500 square feet. Plans are still in the works on the residential buildings, but Saulnier said they'll have "modern" exteriors that will nevertheless blend in with the surrounding mill complex.

Revisiting and improving the project

The site is in walking distance to the Saco Station, a stop for Amtrak's Downeaster train and for local buses, on the west side of Saco Island; as well as downtown Saco. Also in development on the island has been Mill No. 4, an abandoned mill in redevelopment by Chinburg Properties for mixed use, including 150 residential units.

Saulnier said he was attracted to the project from the beginning.

"It was already permitted once," he said. "My thoughts were to go in and activate the permit again, downsize the units, and make it a simpler easier project. That's where I was heading, until the city planner, Bob Hamblen, asked me to revisit the project, get more creative, do something a little better and have public use."

Development is expected to cost nearly $40 million, funded by a group of private investors, he said. Saulnier is both one of the owners and the developer.

There's plenty of potential in the condo market, Saulnier said.

"There's no new product coming up and no products on the water," said Saulnier. "And there's a need for housing, especially this type of housing — close to the beach, close to the commuter rail across the street."

In addition, he continued, Portland condos and rents are "out of control on pricing."

"The educated buyer will realize that Saco will have as much or more to offer with a discount of the Portland prices," he said.

Saulnier said he and his team will seek tax incentives from the city to help fund the project, which includes environmental cleanup and construction of infrastructure like a new seawall, road, sidewalks, the riverwalk, and a pump station for the sewer system.

"We're looking to partner with the city," he said. "As a developer, we can't do everything without getting help. We think that, because this is downtown with public access for folks in Biddeford and Saco, there's good chance of getting tax incentives."

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