BREWER, Maine — Some of the children who went to Brewer Middle School, which opened 87 years ago, may return as seniors to live within its walls, Brewer Housing Authority executive director Gordon Stitham said Friday.
The housing authority got site plan approval on Aug. 7 to convert the historic school — built in 1926 and vacant for the last three years — into more than two-dozen single-bedroom, low-income apartments.
“This is going to add some 28 units of affordable housing for seniors age 55-plus in this area,” Stitham said. “It’s needed.”
The Brewer Housing Authority filed a 2008 letter of interest with the city about acquiring the old middle school, located at 5 Somerset St., after learning that it, along with three other schools, would be put up for sale when the new Brewer Community School opened its doors.
City leaders created an ad hoc committee in 2010 to look into redevelopment options for the four buildings, and held several public meetings to get input. Affordable housing definitely topped the list of needs, said Nicole Gogan, Brewer’s economic development specialist.
“There is quite a need in the community,” she said Friday.
As the plans for renovating the middle school moved forward, the city’s economic development team and housing authority leaders realized the city would need to make some zoning and other changes in order to fit the project into the lot.
The housing project faced parking and residential density problems under the old rules, because “the building takes up 46 percent of the lot,” Code Enforcement Officer Ben Breadmore said Thursday.
City leaders, thinking ahead, also applied for federal hazardous material cleanup funds when they learned that the old schools would become their property in 2010, and started to develop plans to improve the entire city block.
Some of the zoning changes were completed earlier this year and others were finalized at the August planning board meeting. The city amended the local street ordinance to narrow up the street and allow for more parking on the side of the building, Breadmore said.
“There will be parking for 28 onsite, and they’ll be leasing parking on the side [of the building] for the rest,” he said.
City planners also modified a portion of the zoning district to classify it as adaptive reuse, and earlier this year created a floating zone that allows the housing authority or another developer to get waivers for residential density and parking, because the project benefits the city by adding much needed low-income housing.
The building, which was made with Brewer brick and includes a performance stage, is now on the National Register of Historic Places and will make a great apartment building, Gogan said.
“It’s a beautiful building and it’s in great shape,” she said. “It’s in a great location, it’s close to Wilson Street, State Street and the center of town, and the bus route goes there.
“I hate to use a cliche, but it’s a win-win for everyone,” Gogan said.
Somerset Place Associates, a limited liability corporation under the housing authority, will purchase the middle school property, and the housing authority also will be the developer, Stitham said.
Brewer City Council agreed to sell the empty school to the housing authority for $15,000, and in October 2012 created the Highland Street Community Revitalization Plan project to revitalize the block around the old school.
The city plans to use federal and other grants to improve the aesthetic value of the neighborhood block formed by Highland, State, Somerset and Parker streets, which includes the old middle school, the empty State Street School and a playing field.
The school’s 78-seat stage area will be designated for use by all of the residents of the housing authority, not just those living at the renovated middle school, Stitham said. Housing authority leaders are looking for funds to purchase a handicap-accessible van so residents can be transported from their homes to performances, he said.
The balcony of the performance area, however, will remain closed, Breadmore said.
City leaders applied for cleanup funds through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfield program and learned in May that they got two $200,000 grants.
The funds will be used at the middle school to help with the cost of removing old lead paint, asbestos tiles and a small amount of PCBs in caulking, D’arcy Main-Boyington, Brewer’s economic development director, said when the city was awarded the funds.
The second grant is designated for State Street School, which another developer is currently considering redeveloping into affordable family housing, said Gogan. The city also has talked about demolishing the State Street building, which police say has been repeatedly broken into, in order to add parking.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development subsidy program provides tax credits to investors of affordable rental housing for low-income households.
The housing authority is applying for the low-income tax credits through Maine State Housing Authority, and all the work the city has done to assist the project and improve the neighborhood will look good on the application, Stitham said.
“We’re just keeping our fingers crossed at this point,” the housing authority executive said.
When the renovations will begin depends entirely on when and if the housing authority gets the funding, he said.
The historic housing project may result in a homecoming for some future residents, Stitham said.
“Some students who went to school there may be returning as residents,” he said.