BREWER, Maine — The Brewer Housing Authority expressed an interest in redeveloping the historic Brewer Middle School into affordable senior housing back in 2008, and signed a purchase and sale agreement last year. But the project has been stalled by residential zoning limits.
The housing authority’s plan is to change the old middle school, built in 1926 and vacant for the last three years, into 28 one-bedroom units.
“Under current zoning that wouldn’t be feasible,” planner Linda Johns said Monday, explaining that the current zoning does not allow for high-density housing and that there is currently not enough parking for the intended use.
That is why city leaders are proposing an Adaptive Reuse District or floating zone, she said.
“It’s a new tool that is used for zoning,” Johns said. “It’s the first time Brewer has used it and I’m not sure of another local municipality using it.”
A floating zone would allow developers and landowners to apply for waivers from existing zoning restrictions as long as the project benefits the city or school department.
The housing authority project would qualify because it would benefit the city by adding low-income housing for seniors.
Any potential project in a floating zone would follow the same procedures needed for any contract zone — developers would file a site plan, the planning board would hold a public hearing and a contract zone agreement would be sent to the City Council for final approval. Once the contract zone is approved, the parcel would then be designated on the zoning map.
The middle school is on a very small piece of land, Johns said last week. Under the change, there would be opportunities for a variety of residential and commercial uses that would fit the neighborhood, she said.
The floating zone proposed for the old middle school and State Street School sites would allow developers and landowners, in this case the housing authority and its limited liability corporation, Somerset Place Associates, to get waivers for residential density and parking, Johns said.
“It makes sense,” the city planner said. “I think it will be a great asset for the area.”
The planning board held a public hearing last week on the proposed floating zone and another zoning change to establish a downtown development district. About a dozen residents sat in the audience, and two people went to the podium to ask clarifying questions about the downtown district.
The planning board approved both proposals at their meeting last week, and the first reading of each zoning change goes before the City Council on May 20.
The city has been working for years on redeveloping the old schools and applied for cleanup funds through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfield program to help with the cost of removing old lead paint and asbestos tiles. The EPA issued $66 million in Brownfield grants nationwide last week, with New England states raking in about $12 million.
“ We got two $200,000 grants,” D’arcy Main-Boyington, Brewer’s economic development director, said Monday. “The first one is to be use towards the middle school remediation — removing asbestos, lead paint and a small amount of PCBs, in caulking. The second one is for the State Street School remediation.”
The city is planning to remove State Street School and put in a parking lot that can be used by the redeveloped middle school project, folks using the gym, and any future project at the demolished school site.
The lack of parking in a two-block area along Center Street, Betton Street and State Street is why the city is proposing the downtown development district.
The zoning change would allow for smaller lot sizes and no building setbacks, unless required for safety, and would also make some of the nonconforming buildings conforming, Johns said.
The current zoning, which requires business owners to have designated parking within 500-feet has made it difficult to get people to invest in the area, Main-Boyington said.
“It comes up a number of times,” she said. “Throughout the rest of the city that works very well, but it doesn’t work in the downtown where the businesses are so close together.”
The goal of creating the downtown development district is to encourage the general public to live, shop and walk downtown.
“To make the riverfront areas usable and walkable,” Johns said.