LEWISTON, Maine — Lewiston’s City Council on Tuesday approved public funding to demolish decrepit buildings and establish a special tax district for two different projects aimed at rebuilding that city’s downtown residences and boosting tax rolls.
The council approved $135,000 to knock down three distressed buildings on Bartlett and Walnut streets as part of a multiphase downtown development transformation plan called Growing Our Tree Streets. Plans call for 64 housing units on those three and other lots. The money will come from the city’s demolition fund and credits it has from an agreement with ReEnergy.
It also approved a tax increment financing district, or TIF, to help fund a 35-unit mixed income housing project at Blake and Pine streets. That tax break would result in the city and the developer equally splitting the new taxes generated on the property for 15 years, after which the city would get all of the taxes.
Misty Parker, Lewiston’s economic development manager, said the council’s approval for the demolition of the three buildings is a big step forward for the Tree Streets transformation project. The Tree Streets, named after ash, maple and other trees, encompass 30 blocks adjacent to Lewiston City Hall and running up to Webster Street.
“Those buildings have code violations and significant health and safety issues,” she said. “They really need to be demolished.”
Those properties are owned by Lewiston Auburn Community Housing, a development subsidiary of Community Concepts, and are located at 107 and 119 Bartlett St. and at 43 Walnut St.
The project is a collaboration among the city and Lewiston-based Community Concepts and Healthy Neighborhoods, a grassroots organization.
The draft 250-page transformation plan was developed under a $1.3 million grant awarded to the city and Community Concepts in February 2018 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. That program aims to help communities revitalize affordable housing to transform neighborhoods.
Public comment on the transformation plan closed a couple weeks ago, and the council is due to review it in late September, Parker said.
Recasting a neighborhood and a reputation
The Tree Streets neighborhood has a reputation for being dangerous and having rundown housing tainted with lead. That’s a far cry from its inception as an area that housed factory workers during the days when Lewiston was rich from local mill activity.
Shanna Cox, a development team member with Healthy Neighborhoods who lives in the Tree Streets, said she would like to change that reputation.
She was living in the Tree Streets when a series of three fires were set in a period of eight days starting on April 29, 2013. Nine buildings and 77 apartment units were lost and more than 200 people were made homeless. The fires were set by different individuals. Two adults and two children aged 12 were charged with arson.
“I spent months feeling tense every time I heard a fire truck,” Cox said.
But she characterized the neighborhood as one where people are friendly and help each other get things done.
“We can overcome what people think,” she said.
Healthy Neighborhoods held a barbecue after its monthly meeting Tuesday, attracting 250 people and encouraging them to attend the City Council meeting.
Jill, a Tree Streets resident, did come to the meeting and asked city councilors to consider putting in a temporary dog park in the demolition area so neighbors and dogs could meet.
Approval of the demolition funds had strong support from the community and all but one city councilor.
“The current owners should find another source other than the Lewiston taxpayers for the $135,000,” said Councilor Michael Marcotte, the lone dissenting vote.
Councilor Zachery Pettengill said he is impressed with the community involvement in the project.
“This will bring back investment,” he said. “This will get people out of their homes. It’s civic engagement at its best.” He also liked the idea of the temporary dog park.
Giving a tax break to get higher taxes later
The new tax increment financing district and council approval for a joint development agreement between the city of Lewiston and the Blake & Pine development district will result in a 15-year tax break with the aim of getting higher taxes in the long run.
In documents filed with the city, Avesta Housing and Blake & Pine will develop 111 Blake St. and 82 Pine St., currently two empty lots, into a 35-unit mixed-income housing project. Community Concepts is a partner in the project.
During the 15-year tax break for the new district, the city will return half of the taxes that were paid back to the developer. Each will get an estimated $22,253 annually.
Under the project plan, future property taxes would be much higher than current taxes on the land, which has an assessed value of $47,640. The developer expects the redeveloped property’s value will be at least $1.6 million.
Lincoln Jeffers, Lewiston’s director of economic and community development, said the land will be costly to redevelop because there are chemicals in the soil that require about $500,000 in remediation work.
The City Council passed the plan with a vote of 5-2, with Marcotte and Pettengill voting no.
“This isn’t fair to the taxpayers of Lewiston,” Marcotte said. “There should be some other way to make this city whole.”
He added that he can see having a tax increment financing district for commercial businesses but not for housing.
Cox of Healthy Neighborhoods disagreed.
“Retail brings in tax money as does the affordable housing projects in our community,” she said. “Everyone adds to the tax base and they do so at a higher rate than those empty lots or dilapidated buildings.”