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October 17, 2017

Statler Mill redevelopment faces opposition over low-income housing

Eight years after Augusta acquired the 32-acre former Statler Mill property on the east side of the Kennebec River, and 16 years after the mill closed, the city is still struggling with developing the site.

The latest proposal for two acres of the complex — 34 low-income housing units that city and development officials hoped would kickstart multi-use development long hoped for at the site — is running into opposition from residents of the neighborhood, the Kennebec Journal reported.

Also keeping developers away is the estimated $1.7 million it would cost to build a mile-long access road along the length of the property.

Augusta Housing Authority's proposal

A request for proposals for housing development at the north end of the site, near Route 3, got no takers in April, but the Augusta Housing Authority has asked to lease two acres at the south end at no cost for a low-income development.

The six-building, 34-unit complex would be at the end of dead-end residential Maple Street, which is off Bangor Street, the main north-south artery on Augusta's east side. The authority is also asking for a tax increment financing deal for the $6 million project.

The rents wouldn't be subsidized, but residency would be restricted to those who earn less than 50 to 60% of the area median income, a range of $17,000 a year for an individual and up to $40,000 for a family. Rents would be between $581 to $967.

Amanda Bartlett, director of the housing authority, said 449 more units of housing are needed in Augusta to meet the demand for affordable housing, according to a Maine Housing Authority study.

"We need to have housing available for people who are in the workforce who don't have the resources to live outside of town, who need to live where they work," she said.

Residents of the area have said at city meetings that the development would add too much traffic, discourage developers and isn't part of the vision the East Side Planning Committee proposed in 2011. That proposal cited retail, recreational, and high-end condominiums as the desired use for the Statler site. Area landlords also said the development would also hurt their income.

Cost of access road remains a hurdle

City officials have long said that cost of building a road to the site, which it renamed Kennebec Lockes, is keeping many developers away. The paper mill was once accessed by Drum Barker Road, at the north end of the site, off Riverside Drive near Route 3, but that road is steep and narrow and wouldn't meet the standards for any proposed use of the site, officials have said.

A road that would properly access the length of the site would cost $1.7 million a mile, the council was told.

Mayor David Rollins has suggested that the City Council look into ways the city could fund the road as a way to spur development.

Mattson: Low-income housing would be 'positive'

The site is tucked between railroad tracks and the Kennebec River, north of the commerce area of the east side of the city and across the river and upstream from downtown.

When the mill was built in 1903, it was at the site of the Edwards Dam, which also powered the Edwards Mill across the river. The mill closed in 2001, and the city took over the vacant property in 2009 in lieu of $650,000 in taxes owed by Augusta Tissue LLC. Site cleanup took four years, funding largely by Environmental Protection Agency grants.

A conceptual plan the city commissioned in 2012 showed the area being a possible transportation hub, including railroad use, as well as commercial, office, recreational and residential use.

Developer Kevin Mattson told the Kennebec Journal the low-income housing would be "a positive." Mattson is not involved in the project but has developed several sites in the Augusta-Waterville area for mixed use.

He said a mix of income levels and age levels is best for development. "If I was developing a new community, I would never want to limit it to just high-end housing," he said. "(Low-income housing) wouldn't bother me at all, as long as it is managed by someone reputable."

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