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December 20, 2018

Proposed former-school redevelopment highlights Belfast's housing crunch

Courtesy / Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate/The Masiello Group
Courtesy / Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate/The Masiello Group
A proposal to convert former Peirce Elementary School, at 24 Church St. in Belfast, into eight rental units has highlights the need for more housing overall in the city.

A proposal to convert former Peirce Elementary School, at 24 Church St. in Belfast, into eight rental units has highlighted the need for more housing overall in the city.

The Belfast City Council took up the topic at its Dec. 18 meeting, when it discussed proposed rezoning amendments to allow the conversion.

According to city documents, proposed contract rezoning amendments would allow Peirce School to be redeveloped as either rental or ownership multi-family housing. Currently, the zone only allows the school to be redeveloped as condominium-ownership housing. The property is on the market and several buyers have expressed interest in developing the property as rental housing.

At the Dec. 18 meeting, Director of Code and Planning Wayne Marshall noted the city has previously identified lack of rental opportunities as a crisis, particularly with regard to affordable workforce housing.

In 2014, the council adopted a contract rezoning amendment for Residential 1 zoning district, which includes the school. Uses permitted included multifamily dwelling, but with the provision that the dwelling units must be subject to a condominium form of ownership. Other permitted uses include owner-occupied boarding, lodging house or group home, with certain provisions; residential retirement housing, assisted living, hospice and similar uses, with certain provisions; lodging, fitness center, recreational facility, museum, community center, professional offices and more.

The council's adoption of the 2014 provisions reflected its intent at the time to allow a wide range of options for the potential reuse of Peirce and other properties, Marshall said.

Neighborhood opinion of the proposal was divided. One neighbor, speaking in support, said Belfast has a shortage of available rental apartments. But others expressed concern about density, increased traffic and impacts on the building's historical character.

The planning board has heard a proposal from Reservoir Ventures in Stockton Springs, to turn the building into eight rental apartments, the Bangor Daily News reported. Reservoir Ventures is owned by Matt Francis, his wife Jessie Francis, and their business partner Tyler Eads. Proposed rent would be $1,500 per month, including utilities.

At the council meeting, Matt Francis said he and Eads grew up in Belfast, went to Maine Maritime Academy and work as merchant marine officers. Jessie Francis is director of a nonprofit in Belfast.

"All this to say that Belfast has always been our home," he said.

Francis said it's his business's goal "to have positive impact on this community. I know what it means to be working professional in our community."

Lack of workforce and lack of apartments to house workforce in Belfast is well-documented, he said.

"If Belfast is to attract young people, professionals and new businesses and have a vibrant future, we must ensure ample available housing," Francis said. "The change in city ordinance does that."

Council members said that $1,500 per month is more on the high end, rather than workforce housing.

"It's a little bit above average for rentals," said Councilor Neal Harkness. "I want people who work at McDonald's to able to live in this town." Still, he said, he favored any addition of housing units.

The council agreed to hold a second reading of the proposed amendment on Jan. 15.

The school is listed for sale by Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate/The Masiello Group, with an asking price of $349,000. According to the listing, the 1915 schoolhouse would be "well suited to residential or office use. With 14-foot ceilings, large windows, some with seasonal water views, huge chalkboards, coat rooms and wooden floors and trim, this property has outstanding potential."

Reservoir Ventures' proposal for the school comes a year and a half after the former Crosby High School, at 96 Church St. reopened as the revitalized Crosby Center.

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