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April 1, 2021

Townhouse plan may be the one that works for Saco Island's undeveloped east side

a vacant tract of land in a river, with snow on it, and behind it many brick mills Courtesy / Saco Island Ventures LLC A 12-duplex residential complex has been proposed for the undeveloped east side of Saco Island, foreground, which has been the site of several failed proposals over the last 15 years.

The developer of mill space on the west side of Saco Island is proposing 12 duplex townhouses for the undeveloped east side, the site of several recent more ambitious but ultimately failed proposals.

Ted Moore, principal of Saco Island Ventures LLC, has submitted a proposal to the Saco planning board to build 24 three-bedroom residential units on six acres along the Saco River. Moore has developed 43 apartments, as well as commercial space, in the mills on the west side of the island, which is divided from the vacant side by Main Street.

The planning board Wednesday night got its first look at the proposal, and it is scheduled to be back before the board April 20. The project is represented by local attorney Paul Weinstein and South Portland-based Gorrill Palmer, which is the civil engineering firm presenting the project to the planning board.

The plan calls for 12 duplex buildings comprising 24 residential units, each with ground-level entry and its own driveway. Unlike previous plans, which included boat slips, a river walk and more, there is no river access with the plan.

The long-vacant overgrown area, which also includes land owned by Central Maine Power, generates $8,000 a year in property taxes "and has become an attractant homeless encampment resulting in increased calls for emergency services visits associated with these unsuitable activities," a news release by the developer said. If the development is built, the property will be professionally maintained and is expected to generate more than $200,000 annually in property tax revenue for the city.

“These townhouses will be very tasteful, and when the project is finished it will contribute far more property tax revenue to the city than the vacant land,” said Stephen Bushey, the project manager and a senior associate at Gorrill Palmer. “Traffic impact will be very low, and the land will be substantially improved to stabilize the ground, remove invasive plants and complete much-needed revegetation."

an aerial rendering wth 12 buildings in a semicircle on a peninsula with a lot of trees
Courtesy / Saco Island Ventures LLC
A rendering of 12 two-unit apartment buildings proposed for the east side of Saco Island.

A more modest proposal

The proposal, is more modest than recent plans that never came to fruition. Moore bought the six acres from developer Bernie Saulnier in July 2019, and later that year proposed 15 townhouses with 30 dwelling units, as well as a marina. The project required a public/private partnership, and "officials signaled their disinterest in striking an agreement," the release said.

Sauliner had previously proposed The Waters, a $40 million complex with residential units, commercial space, a hotel, open space, a riverwalk and marina. It was supposed to break ground in 2018, but the deal fell apart.

A 2006 proposal for the island called for 30 townhouses on the west side and a marina on the east side that was never completed despite a city council-approved tax increment financing agreement of 95% tax forgiveness for 15 years, then 90% for another 15 years after that.

a sepia toned photo from likely the early 20th century of boats in a river with land with buildings on it behind
Courtesy / Saco Island Ventures LLC
The east side of Saco Island was once a busy docking area for the mills of Saco and Biddeford.

Bringing back the vibrance

The goal of the new plan is to help boost the residential and commercial vibrance of the island as a whole, which is adjacent to both downtown Saco and Biddeford. The development overall, and specifically the increase in residences and businesses, is in harmony with the city’s current effort to update its comprehensive plan, the release said.

The development would not only bring more business to downtown, but would also be another piece to solving the housing crunch in the fast-growing city of 19.500. The developer's news release cited a recent study by Camoin Associates, commissioned by the city, that says Saco's low vacancy rate is compounded by the fact nearly 30% of the city’s housing units were built before 1939 and 97% of its housing units are more than 10 years old. Between 2010 and 2019, Saco’s population grew at an annual rate of 0.89%, nearly double the state’s rate, according to the study.

Although the east side of Saco Island has been long vacant, with the exception of a strip of land owned by Central Maine Power along the road, it once was a busy business area. Docks along the river accommodated a thriving marine transport area associated with the mills on the west side, which are on rocky falls. Remnants of that long-ago period remain on the site, with various rubble of foundations still visible.

The west side has undergone a decade-long renaissance with its sprawling mill buildings renovated by Moore, as well as Chinburg Properties, of New Hampshire, into residential, retail, office and restaurant space. Businesses there include Crossfit Rising Tide, The Deli & Company, Run of the Mill Public House & Brewery, the new Pacifico restaurant and several other personal services firms. The Saco Transportation Center, including the Downeaster Amtrak station, is also on the west side of the island.

Moore is principal of both Saco Island Ventures LLC and the Forge Collection, which manages apartments, offices and other commercial spaces on the west side of the island. The firm has invested more than $7 million in renovating the property, and last year completed 31 new apartments in what used to be known as Unit 91, a property Moore bought from the city in 2018. The company in January began work on converting vacant office space in an adjacent building at 110 Main St. into 12 apartments.

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