ORONO, Maine — The Portland-based group looking into the uses and future of the former Webster Mill is attempting to balance profitability with accessibility for current residents used to exploring the scenic but degraded spot at the confluence of the Stillwater and Penobscot rivers.
Speaking to a group of residents and town councilors last week during a public meeting about the mill site, Kevin Bunker, a principal of Developers Collaborative, which has rights to the town-owned site, said that balance may come in the form of a higher-end condominium development.
“It’s a residential site. That’s what it wants to be,” Bunker said. “Furthermore, with the real estate market the way it is, there’s nobody else coming besides a residential use. I’m 100 percent positive that’s the highest and best use of the site. I’m just not comfortable with when. The market will tell us that.”
The plan — which is very tentative at this point and still depends on more market research — calls for two dozen units starting at $170,000 to $200,000 for one-bedroom units and $300,000 for two- and three-bedroom units.
Town planner Evan Richert said Developers Collaborative recently sent the town a letter indicating it wants to go ahead with purchase-and-sale negotiations.
The first major question that must be answered before development can proceed, Bunker said, is whether the current building can be salvaged and renovated, or should be demolished and developed with new construction. WBRC Architects-Engineers of Bangor determined the building could be saved, with a few exceptions to areas that are too deteriorated.
In fact, Bunker said, a market analysis showed that the building’s history may not make a difference to prospective buyers.
“What condo buyers want is a low condo fee,” Bunker said. “They want a maintenance-free lifestyle, they don’t want a lot of hassle or expensive amenities. … People are buying a lifestyle. They’re not buying a share in a historic building.”
Condo prices in Maine are usually around $120-$160 per square foot, Bunker said, but the prospective development would be around $220 per square foot because of potential rehabilitation costs to the building. Renovation costs are usually more expensive than new construction, he added.
Bunker said Developers Collaborative is keeping in mind public access to the area, which residents have explored on their own for years. Some of the public areas in the tentative development plans include a possible canoe and kayak launch site, a picnic area and a trail system that would lead to an overlook.
Still, maintaining condo owners’ privacy has to be a consideration.
“There has to be someplace where these condominium owners feel like it’s their place, that they’re not going to have someone tramping through,” Bunker said. “However, we have to put that together with the desire of the public to come down and use this. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Student housing is not being considered for the site, Bunker added. During a public meeting in 2008 several residents said they were against that kind of use for the mill.
“I guess we were hoping for something a little more exciting than condos,” said John Hackney, who lives at 51 North Main St. “But at least it’s not student housing.”
Stephen Dyer of Ransom Environmental Consultants in Portland also provided an update of the site’s environmental conditions. Although testing has shown toxins such as arsenic and lead in the soil, Dyer described the contamination as low-level and said abatement can be done on-site with a soil cover system that includes use of a material that is hard to penetrate.
Inside the Webster Mill building, Dyer said, asbestos was found in some of the heating system components and flooring, but no lead paint was identified in any part of the structure.
Of immediate concern is an 8,000-square-foot L-shaped section on the south end building, which is on the verge of collapse. That section would have to be demolished before environmental work starts.
Orono officials learned in May 2009 the cleanup project had received a $200,000 brownfield cleanup grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.
There is a public comment period, ending Tuesday, Feb. 2, during which time residents can offer suggestions about the site. To comment, contact Town Planner Evan Richert at 866-5051 or email@example.com.