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Every project has a story behind it, developer Nathan Szanton told the group gathered for the ribbon-cutting at 48 Hamsphire in Auburn Tuesday.
Szanton Co.'s story behind the 53-unit mixed income development began in 2017 and culminated with Tuesday's celebration, scaled down to assure social distancing. But the development is also part of Auburn's bigger story — once a vibrant commercian site, for decades it has been a barren lot. The development is key to Auburn's ongoing downtown revitalization.
Szanton Co., of Portland, had developed several properties in Lewiston when Auburn officials suggested the half-acre lot bordered by Hampshire, Troy, Library streets and railroad tracks.
The site once had four buildings housing such diverse businesses as a cobbler, machine shop, armory, plumbing business, grocery store and bakery, as well as apartments. The last building was torn down in 1999, and by 2017 was being used as overflow parking for the Auburn Public Library and hadn't been on the tax rolls for years.
When he looked at the site in 2017, "the neighborhood was a little scruffy," Szanton, president of Szanton Co. said.
But that's not a bad thing, he added. The city was already working on a Hampshire Street beautifcation project and was committed to bringing the neighborhood back to life.
"We can be part of that renaissance," he said.
The preliminaries for the Hampshire project were already underway when Mayor Jason Levesque was elected in 2017, and he got on board right away.
Levesque said adding quality housing to the downtown core builds on investments the city is making, including upgrading and revitalizing Hampshire Street. Public-private partnerships, like 48 Hampshire, are key to making those investments pay off, he said.
"We're sure to see a pattern here," he said.
Both Levesque and Szanton said while the COVID-19 pandemic made for a scaled-down ribbon-cutting, it didn't change the project's course.
“There’s a huge demand, for high-quality, affordably priced rentals in Auburn,” Szanton said. “COVID-19 hasn’t changed that."
Levesque said, "The fact that life continues, business continues," is an indication of the commitment of the city and private sector to get things done.
"This project illustrates it," he said.
Projects generally take about four years to complete, said Kristin Martin, Szanton development officer.
Szanton Co. broke ground on the project in March 2019, nearly two years after the company paid $45,000 for the lot.
Among the issues before building was making sure the ground underneath was suitable. Site borings by Ransom Engineering found building debris, fencing, charred building remains, aspalt, glass, pottery and more.
"There was dirty dirt here," Martin said. "It was a big process."
Financing for the $10 million project came through MaineHousing, which approved $810,000 in low income tax credits, Boston Financial Investment Management, NBT bank, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development HOME program. It's also part of a city tax increment financing plan. It's managed by the Auburn Housing Authority.
The building, which meets the city's form-based code, was designed by Platz Associates, of Auburn. Benchmark, of Westbrook, was the construction manager.
It's the second building in the neighborhood to be part of the four-year-old form-based code, which focuses more on how a building's design fits in with the neighborhood, than on specific aesthetic requirements.
A few blocks away, 62 Spring St. was the first constructed under the code. The 39,485-square-foot building has 41 workforce apartments and 2,500 square feet of commercial space and was completed last year and was also built by Benchmark.
Because of the code, the four-story 48 Hampshire building is a T-shape. The code required the lot be filled out, Szanton told Mainebiz last year.
48 Hampshire building has 17 apartments set aside for those who make 50% or less of the median area income, 25 for those who make 60% or less and 11 market-rate apartments.
The median income in the Lewiston-Auburn area last year was $52,011, according to MaineHousing. A developer's access to low-income tax credits requires that at least 20% of a building's units be rented to those who earn 50% or less of the area median income, and 40% to those who earn 60% or less.
There are 26 one-bedroom units, 16 two-bedroom and 11 three-bedroom, and rents range from $600 to $950 for the one-bedrooms, depending on income category; $750 to $1,175 for the two-bedroom; and $833 to $1,350 for the three-bedroom.
Martin said that 23 of the apartments have already been leased, and tenants are expected to start moving in by the end of this month.
Szanton said that, considering the pandemic, and the necessity of meeting in inside spaces to rent out space, the speed at which they're being snatched up is impressive. The certificate of occupancy was issued May 15, and he expects the building to be fully leased by August.
"I feel it fills a need," he said.
He stressed there is no difference between market-rate apartments and those rented to those with lower incomes.
Szanton Co. has also set aside 13 parking spaces in the building's lot to account for the library overlow that used the vacant lot where the building now is.
Szanton Co. completed the 63-unit Hartley Block at 155 Lisbon St., in Lewiston, a year ago, also designed by Platz Associates. The company also developed The Lofts at Bates Mill.
Szanton told Mainebiz last year that the aging housing stock in the two cities makes the need for quality afforable housing even greater.
“There’s a very strong demand for high-quality affordable housing in the Lewiston-Auburn area,” Szanton said. “A lot of what’s there is poor quality, it’s been neglected for decades.”
Levesque, Auburn's mayor, said Tuesday 48 Hampshire, is about more than a building. "It's not just 53 units with wifi, a community room and a fitness center," he said Tuesday. "It's 53 homes."
Residents will be part of the community, "all part of the fabric of Auburn, adding vitality, energy," he said.
The apartment building is within walking distance of City Hall, the city's downtown shops, the library, the bus line, as well as downtown Lewiston.
Szanton said, "Each of the households that moves in is like a little economic engine."
Tenants eat at local restaurants, get their closed clean at the nearby dry-cleaner, bank at the neighborhood banks.
Szanton noted that people on the lower end of the income scale spend most of their income. Those living at 48 Hampshire, he said, "will spend it here in Auburn."