March 19, 2018
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New owner plans co-housing, performance space for old Belfast high school

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff

BELFAST, Maine — Belfast’s former high school has changed hands again, and its new owner wants the community to play a big part in its diverse future as a residence, performance venue, community center, restaurant and creative space.

On the last day of December, Belfast resident Kiril Lozanov took over ownership of the 94-year-old building. Now, he starts what he expects will be a five-year process to put the entire building back into use. But locals could start seeing signs of renewal much sooner.

“I’m looking at soon making the Crosby School my home, and a home for other people, too,” Lozanov said Wednesday during a tour of the building.

Lozanov, a 43-year-old Bulgarian native, moved to the United States in 1998, and lived in Chicago and a cooperative housing arrangement Wisconsin. He moved to Belfast five years ago, and lives with his family in the Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage.

Today, he’s one of the owners of Capital City Renewables, an alternative energy company that has been involved in several Maine wind power developments, as well as solar projects.

The Crosby School opened on Church Street in 1923, and served as a school until 1993. It temporarily found new life as a hub for a New York-based theater group, but has been largely vacant for nearly a decade.

Lozanov’s plans for the building are wide-ranging. The third floor features more than a dozen dormitory-style apartments added by the previous owner, with a bathroom for every two units.

Within the next few months, Lozanov hopes to reopen these as cohousing-style apartments with enough room for 15 people, or more if couples or families are involved. All of the units would share a kitchen and dining area, and could get together each night to eat a shared meal as a community.

He expects monthly rent to be in the $500 range, which could be a big draw in a region struggling with a shortage of affordable rental properties. If people are willing to try out a somewhat unusual living arrangement, built around cooperation, they could find a great place here, especially considering its close proximity to everything in downtown Belfast, Lozanov said.

There is one apartment unit with its own kitchen, which Lozanov said he’d likely rent out at a higher price.

On the second floor, which is primarily old classroom space, Lozanov plans to open up offices for local businesses or nonprofits looking for a hub. Lozanov plans on relocating his personal business office to the Crosby School as well.

The ground floor is where Lozanov hopes the community is most heavily involved. The school’s old theater will be opened up to community theater groups looking for places to rehearse or perform. The chairs can be cleared from the main floor to make room contra dances or concerts.

“I’ll need people who want to be a part of this space to reach out to me and tell me what they want out of it,” Lozanov said.

Eventually, he’d also like to lease a former cafeteria area and large kitchen to a restaurateur. There’s enough room for 12 seats inside, but a small garden outside the school off Miller Street could provide more outdoor seating.

The building needs some significant renovations. The most major piece is a new roof, which Lozanov estimates could cost about $150,000, or more if he decides to install a metal roof. The building’s boilers are damaged after seeing little use in recent years, and Lozanov hopes to replace the hot-water heating system with heat pumps and radiant floor heating, powered at least in part by solar panels.

Lozanov says he’ll explore potential grants and fundraising to help cover the costs of the redevelopment. He hopes to find enough community support for the project to avoid having to seek out investment partners.

Lozanov said he started playing with the idea of buying the building after a friend who is active in community theater told him that it was a shame that the big stage inside the building went unused when there are several theater and performance groups in town looking for a suitable space.

“At first I said, ‘Of course I’m not going to do that,’” but the more he ran the idea through his head, the more it made sense, he said.

A few years after the school closed, the city sold the building for $200,000 to the National Theatre Workshop for the Handicapped, a New York City-based organization that reportedly spent $3.5 million to add theaters, lounges, apartments and an elevator to the building.

The theater group eventually left town and the underused building fell into disrepair. When the owners defaulted on a $700 sewer bill in 2010, the city foreclosed on the property. The group regained ownership of the building after it made some improvements.

Ultimately, in 2013, the theater group put the structure up for sale. Several potential buyers kicked the tires, and in 2015, a Waterville developer entered a purchase-and-sale agreement with plans to overhaul the building and put in more than 35 apartment units. The deal eventually fell through for undisclosed reasons.

Lozanov called to inquire about the building in 2015, only to find that it was already under contract to the Waterville developer.

In December, the property went up for auction with a minimum bid price of $400,000. About 50 people showed up, but they were only interested in seeing who would buy the property and not in buying it themselves, so the auction was called off.

When the auction fell through, Lozanov again started eyeing the building.

Lozanov plans on hosting an open house for community members in the coming weeks so people can tour the site. He says he hopes locals are invested in the building’s future and that people who once went to the school will share their memories. He plans on dedicating a wall in the building to the history of the site, and will need the help of locals to do that.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

BDN reporter Abigail Curtis contributed to this article.

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