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Updated: December 25, 2019

Long-vacant Augusta 'eyesore' to be redeveloped

Photo / Maureen Milliken 99 Western Ave. in Augusta, the original home of the University of Maine at Augusta and most recently office space, was bought this month by real estate broker Jim Pepin, who plans 52 apartments.

Augusta real estate broker Jim Pepin has had his eye on 99 Western Ave. for years.

It's not about looks — the rambling office building that towers near the street is a cobbled-together sampling of 20th century architecture made worse by years of neglect. "It's pretty rough," Pepin said. "Think of the world's largest haunted house."

But Pepin, who works a Sprague & Curtis a block east on Western Avenue, sees past the superficial to the building's soul — which in real estate terms is location, good bones and demand. He always knew it could be more than the eyesore it's become.

That dream became a reality earlier this month when Pepin, as Jim Pepin Properties LLC, bought the building for $100,000 from owner Joseph Cooper. Pepin hopes he can develop it into 52 studio and one-room apartments.

"It's been an ugly eyesore forever," Pepin told Mainebiz Monday. "I drive by it probably 15 times a day, and I've been trying to buy it for years."

Pepin said after years of nothing happening the sale "happened really fast, in the snap of a finger."

The plan for apartments will help meet the demand for housing in the city, Pepin said, and he's also looking forward to "spiffing it up and making it look nice." The 1.12-acre lot has 40 parking spaces, and two smaller residential buildings at the back of the parking lot, which is behind the building, off Pike Street. Together it's about 25,000 square feet of usable space on the city's main commercial drag, which stretches from Exit 109 of Interstate 95 into the city's core.

The city is happy about the sale, too, said Keith Luke, Augusta deputy director of development services. He told Mainebiz the site "has been a challenging property for several years now."

"The rental housing market in Augusta is tight," and demand is strong, Luke said. He said, given the location, "I’m optimistic [Pepin] will be able to convert the building into quality rental housing."

Pepin isn't a stranger to being a landlord. He owns 44 rental buildings in the city, which he said are all under contract to a buyer. If that transaction is successful, he said, he may be able to roll the capital into the 99 Western Ave. redevelopment. The building is at the southern end of the city's Opportunity Zone, so taking advantage of the tax benefit is one of many options for redevelopment, he said.

"There are a lot of things I may be able to do," Pepin said. "I'm looking at all of it. I'm in no particular rush, I want to do it right."

Courtesy / Sprague & Curtis Real Estate
99 Western Ave., Augusta, is on a 1.12-acre lot at the corner of Pike Street.

History and mystery

The oldest portion of the building was built in 1910, and no one's really sure about its initial use. In 1967, it briefly became the home of the newly established University of Maine at Augusta. After UMA moved to its own campus in north Augusta in the early 1970s, it was an office building.

"It was going strong 20, 25 years ago," Pepin said. But the latest owner let the building fall vacant, and issues piled up.

Luke said, "99 Western Avenue has been a challenging property for several years now. It’s redevelopment was made more challenging when the prior owner of the property relinquished grandfathered commercial rights to the back half of the property — which is in a residential zone — and made it much more difficult to accommodate a commercial re-use."

While Western Avenue is largely commercial, the neighborhood behind is residential, mostly 19th and early 20th century houses on small lots, much of it a historic district.

Pepin said he plans to look into the history of the building to see if there's any chance of getting historic preservation tax credits. He's not even sure which part of the building is the original.

"It's kind of cobbled together in three parts," he said. Given Western Avenue's origins as a residential thoroughfare of large stately homes, "It's possible it was originally a single family home," he said. "But it was added to, commercialized, added to again."

He said it's in "surprisingly good shape" given the neglect of the past decade-plus. "And as big as it looks from the outside, it's even bigger inside."

He doesn't plan to demolish any of the building. "It's an old building in need of repair," he said. "But it's rock solid."

Growing opposition to residential uses on that stretch of Western Avenue, spurred by some group homes in the neighborhood, led to a proposal earlier this year to ban more residential housing on the street. The city council voted down the proposal in July.

Pepin is working with the city on the apartment plan, but if that doesn't work out, there are a lot of possibilities.

"It's going to take a lot of work, whatever I do," he said. "But I'm very excited. This is a true win-win situation, it's taking a blighted property and doing something with it."

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