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April 4, 2018

Proposal for 23 units in downtown Augusta would 'provide a huge jolt'

Photo / Maureen Milliken The Vickery building, center, and the Doughty buiding, right, as well as the buildings on either side at 257-271 Water St. in downtown Augusta may become 23 apartments if a proposal by Mastview Development is approved by the city Planning Board.

AUGUSTA — Developers of a historic four-building block on Water Street plan 23 apartments, retail and amenities that include a gym and possible coworking space — the largest development in the capital city’s evolving downtown.

The major subdivision plan for 257-271 Water St. is scheduled for a public hearing before the city Planning Board on Wednesday, April 10.

The nearly 43,000 square feet in four buildings, which were combined as one property by the previous owner, is used mostly as office space.

Developer Andrew LeBlanc said Monday the hope is to renovate the buildings to provide quality housing for a variety of income levels, as well as retail that will bring people downtown.

There will be some high-end apartment units, but there will also be mid-market and affordable units, said LeBlanc, managing partner of of Mastview Development.

“We believe there should be an opportunity for everybody to live in a good place,” he said.

Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said the project would be the largest residential development project downtown. So far, the 12-unit development at 283 Water St., the former Farrell's department store building, had that distinction.

Hall added that city development officials “couldn’t be more thrilled” with the proposal, which has been in the works for more than year.

"One of the biggest challenges on Water Street has been meeting the increasing and insatiable demand for market rate housing,” he said in an email to Mainebiz Monday. “This large-scale development provides a huge jolt to our downtown neighborhood and is welcome news for merchants on the street, providing even more energy and capital to the area."

The development, if approved by the Planning Board, would be ready for occupancy by April 2019, according to a timeline submitted to the board by the developer.

Living history

The LaVerdiere's building, right, is one of a four-building downtown Augusta block that may be turned into apartments.

The four buildings are in the downtown historic district created a year ago, making the project eligible for Historic Preservation Tax Credits. Two of the buildings — the Vickery building at 261 Water St. and the Doughty building at 265 Water St. — have been on the historic register for decades.

But the buildings have community history in common too, said LeBlanc. The two-story building at 257 Water St. was the long-time home of LaVerdiere’s Super Drug Store, the Waterville-based chain that once had 70 stores in northern New England. A parapet on the facade still says “LaVerdiere’s.”

“We’re looking to retain a lot of the historic character of the buildings,” LeBlanc said. He added that the Italian Renaissance granite-faced Vickery building “is one of the most historic buildings in the state.”

Built in 1895, the Vickery is considered the “most finely crafted and architecturally significant commercial building in downtown Augusta,” according to the National Register of Historic Places. The ornate facade is made of white Hallowell granite — which makes it stand out among its red brick neighbors. It was designed by local architect Charles Fletcher for publisher Peleg O. Vickery.

The Doughty building, built in 1890, at six stories high was the tallest downtown building for some time. It’s also narrower than other downtown buildings. Some of its features were considered not stylish at the time — for instance, the horizontal sill courses under the windows in such a vertical building, and the exaggerated cornice at the top.

“Its somewhat odd architectural character contributes to the building's significance as a local landmark,” says its National Register of Historic Places listing.

It was home to Downing Insurance for many years.

The buildings were combined into one property by previous owners, Vickery-Downing Associates. The buildings were sold to 257 Water St. LLC in December.

The block most recently housed Kennebec Pediatrics, which LeBlanc said occupied an upper floor of all four buildings, as well as the Maine Children’s Museum in the 1990s. The LaVerdiere’s building houses a dental practice; a pediatric practice recently moved to the Ballard Center, across the river.

LeBlanc said the Vickery Cafe would stay in the ground floor of the Vickery building.

'Moving in the right direction'

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Four Augusta buildings, including the gray one, center, and the three to the right, may be developed into apartments.

Construction could start as early as July if the project is approved by the board. The first phase would be development of units on the top floors, which could be leased by next January. The second phase would include lower-floor units, which could be leased by next March.

The final phase would include the “lifestyle amenity” areas on the lower floors, some of which is below the floodplain on Front Street, behind the buildings and bordered by the Kennebec River.

LeBlanc said there is about 20,000 square feet of space below Water Street ground level that faces onto Front Street that can’t be used as residential space because it’s below the flood plain.

“We can’t do residential within the floodplain,” he said. “We’d put more in if it were possible.”

Some of that space will be a gym and lounge for building residents, as well as storage and laundry, but developers are still exploring what to do with 12,000 square feet on the lowest level. While it’s considered “basement” space, the lower level has windows that look across the park area on Front Street to the river.

LeBlanc said the space had recently been used as office space, and was in good condition, as is the rest of the space in the buildings.

He said developers are still navigating city approvals and other early steps before the project is a go.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

The project is part of a transition of downtown from office space back to residential and retail.

LeBlanc said that the hard work of a lot of people in the community have contributed to the burgeoning economic revival of downtown Augusta. He hopes this project, too, will be part of that.

“We really feel [downtown Augusta] is a hidden gem in Maine,” he said.

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