PORTLAND, Maine — The city of Portland will consider selling for $1 the historic Nathan Clifford School to a developer, who plans to convert the nearly 46,000-square-foot building into housing.
The low sale price was unanimously endorsed last week by the City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee, and comes with strings attached. The developer will be required to include 18,000 square feet of public space and spend $15,000 on local infrastructure improvements as part of the project.
An alternative option presented to city officials would have featured a far greater sale price — of $200,000 — but would have allowed Kevin Bunker of Developers Collaborative to include two additional two-unit structures on the school campus property, effectively cutting the public space to just 6,000 square feet. The second option would also have carved $10,000 off the infrastructure improvement giveback, taking that figure down to $5,000.
The sale must be approved by the full City Council.
Nicholas Mavodones, chairman of the council’s Housing and Community Development Committee, said preserving public space, relieving the city of maintenance responsibilities for an aging building and finding a compatible development plan for the city’s Oakdale neighborhood were higher priorities in the deal than maximizing profits.
The school property will generate approximately $78,000 in annual tax revenue once it has been redeveloped as market-rate housing, according to Portland Economic Development Director Gregory Mitchell, who outlined the sale options for the committee in a memo earlier this month.
“It’s a lot of space [for the public included in the $1 plan],” Mavodones said Monday. “The neighborhood, at least the folks I talked to, were very interested in that public space and maintaining what they have there.”
The property — which is bordered by Falmouth, Deane and Payson streets — includes playing fields, paved outdoor basketball courts and a playground still used by neighborhood children. The four-story building has been closed since 2011, when it was shut down after 102 years to make room in the local school district for the new Ocean Avenue Elementary School.
The Developers Collaborative proposal, which seeks to build 18 market-rate residential units in the former school, was endorsed by a Nathan Clifford Proposal Review Committee over a competing plan offered by Community Housing of Maine, which sought to build 60 affordable housing units on the 67,000-square-foot campus.
The Community Housing of Maine proposal would have exceeded density limits in the neighborhood — the R-5 residential zone requires 3,000 square feet of land area per unit, meaning the school property would be capped at 22 units without a waiver — and with as many as 24 of the 60 proposed units to be in new buildings on the campus, much of what’s now recreational public space would have been eaten up by new construction.
The Nathan Clifford School project wouldn’t be the first in which Developers Collaborative restored a former school to be used as housing. Within the last five years, the firm worked with Avesta Housing to convert the 1912 Emery School in Biddeford into 24 affordable apartments for elderly residents, and redeveloped Waterville’s 1913 Gilman School to accommodate 35 new affordable units.
A 2012 survey by a 16-member city task force set up to plan for the eventual reuse of the Nathan Clifford School found that 63 percent of neighborhood respondents supported the prospect of redeveloping the school property for residential use, with 73 percent of those saying they’d back market-rate apartments or condominiums.
That compared to just 36 percent from that group who said they’d support either affordable apartments of condominiums.
Even more popular than the idea of converting the school into housing units were the concepts of reopening it as a private school or research institute, but when the city issued its request for redevelopment proposals, no such offers emerged.
Nathan Clifford School was opened in 1909 after an approximately three-year construction period, and was named after a 19th century Portland native who served in the U.S. House of Representatives and on the U.S. Supreme Court.
It was designed by renowned architect John Calvin Stevens and was designated as a Portland Landmark in 1989.