Representatives of at least a dozen development and design firms have expressed interest in a novel proposal in Cumberland to build a compact, multi-generational neighborhood on public land.

Developers gathered for an informational meeting Thursday to discuss the project, which town officials believe could become a model for other communities in Maine. The turnout was unexpected.

“I truly did not expect a crowd this big,” Cumberland Town Manager William Shane said.

Cumberland wants to partner with a real estate developer to build an entire neighborhood of up to 100 homes for people of various ages and income levels. Town officials recently issued a request for qualifications, a means of gauging developer interest in the proposed project. The neighborhood would be developed on 31.7 acres of town-owned property southwest of Tuttle Road near Cumberland Town Hall.

Developer Kevin Bunker, owner of Developers Collaborative in Portland, attended the meeting and said his firm plans to submit a bid. Bunker said his company is very comfortable working with local governments on projects.

“We’ve done it many, many times,” he said. “It’s actually something we specialize in.”

Many communities in Maine are facing housing shortages, Bunker said. He lauded Cumberland officials for taking an active approach to the problem.

Other firms at the meeting included Portland-based developer Avesta Housing and Cumberland-based St. Clair Associates, a land surveying and civil engineering firm.

Avesta President and CEO Dana Totman said he hasn’t decided whether the project is a good fit for his firm, which builds affordable housing.

“We’re still kind of in the exploration stage,” he said. “I would say we’re excited that a municipality is taking proactive steps to create housing in a conscious manner.”

CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS

The project stems from a study completed in January that recommended creating more diverse housing options in Cumberland as a means of increasing local school enrollment, which has declined in recent decades. The study was conducted by York-based Planning Decisions Inc.

In a typical community, families with children tend to occupy larger homes. When the children reach adulthood and move out, the parents often downsize to a smaller home, another growing family moves into the larger home, and the cycle continues.

That’s not really happening in Cumberland, Shane said. Many residents remain in their homes as they age, and as a result the student population has decreased from a high of about 2,400 to roughly 2,000. The share of homes with children enrolled in the local school system, SAD 51, has decreased from a high of 50 percent to about 25 percent, he said.

Shane said Cumberland lacks a diverse range of dwelling sizes and types. Even if an older couple in Cumberland wanted to sell their three- or four-bedroom house and move into a smaller home, townhouse or apartment, they wouldn’t have many options without leaving the community. The Tuttle Road neighborhood project is an attempt to address that problem, he said.

“We can’t rely on the models of the past,” Shane said. “The town is somewhat trying to be a catalyst here.”

SAD 51 Superintendent of Schools Jeff Porter said student enrollment already has turned a corner over the past two years and begun to increase again, particularly in younger grades.

“Though our district enrollment has gone up only modestly, the real story is our K-3 school, which has increased by 70 students in just two years,” he said. “We have had to add a portable building to accommodate (them).”

Porter said some parents have contacted him, confused and angry that Cumberland officials are touting the multi-generational neighborhood project as a solution to declining school enrollment despite the recent uptick. Still, he said, Shane’s point about the need for more diverse housing in Cumberland “is certainly true in many ways.”

MANY POSSIBILITIES

According to the town’s request for qualifications, Cumberland officials envision a neighborhood of rental housing. However, they said the town is open to proposals that include homes for sale, as long as they remain affordable to moderate-income families.

“Anything you submit, we’ll consider,” said Cumberland Director of Planning Carla Nixon. “It does not necessarily have to be all rentals.”

As described in the request for proposals, the project’s goal would be to build 75 to 100 dwellings with a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units. It would include a mix of single-family homes, duplexes, townhouses and apartments, along with dedicated space for a senior assisted living facility with at least 50 beds.

But there is room for flexibility on the types of dwelling, and on whether the neighborhood would be geared entirely toward seniors or a mix of family and senior housing, Shane said.

“All options are open,” he told the developers.

Developers interested in the project are required to submit their qualifications by 5 p.m. on Sept. 27. After a developer is chosen, Cumberland plans to gather 100 to 150 town residents in October for a charrette, an open feedback session during which they can voice their opinions and concerns about the project, Shane said. That feedback will influence the ultimate direction the project will take – or whether it moves forward at all.

Bunker, the developer, said public input is crucial for projects such as this.

“For these things to be successful, there has to be a community consensus about it,” he said.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

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Twitter: @jcraiganderson