PORTLAND – The idea of living in a community of artists is intriguing to Alex Rheault, an assistant professor who chairs the illustration department at the Maine College of Art on Congress Street. So when she learned that a developer was building affordable efficiency apartments around the block on Oak Street and marketing them to artists, she sent in an application.

“It’s close to the college, close to the arts; everything’s within walking distance,” she said.

Turns out, other people also like the concept of Oak Street Lofts. The developer, Avesta Housing, currently is combing through the income qualifications of roughly 200 applicants who have expressed interest in the 37 available units. There’s no requirement to be an artist to live there, but the builder has been marketing to artists since last summer.

“The buzz this has generated in terms of applications and excitement is unprecedented for us,” said Greg Payne, a development officer with Avesta.

Local residents will get a chance to see what the buzz is about at noon Saturday, when Avesta holds an open house at Oak Street Lofts. More than 75 contractors are rushing to finish the job, with occupancy planned for January.

Oak Street Lofts costs $6.4 million to build, or $172,000 per unit. Monthly rents range from $506 to $760, including heat, hot water, electricity and a shared Wi-Fi connection. For example: 21 of the units are available to a single person earning 50 percent of median income, or $25,350. Those units rent for $637 a month.

Portland-based Avesta Housing is one of the largest nonprofit developers of affordable housing in New England. It has a portfolio of more than 1,600 housing units and administers Section 8 housing vouchers for an additional 1,300 families.

But targeting a specific vocational demographic is a first for Avesta, and it has resulted in a project that incorporates some unusual features.

Most striking is the size of each apartment, roughly 400 square feet. With a galley kitchen, closet and bathroom, the space resembles a motel room. A high ceiling and large windows help create a more spacious feel, however. The south-facing units are bathed in sunlight; north-facing rooms on the fourth floor offer glimpses of Back Cove.

Tight quarters are mitigated by ground-floor gallery space along Oak Street, which will include lounge seating, lighting and the means to hang and display artwork. Another common area on the second floor will be set up for studio work space.

Other design elements are aimed at energy efficiency and urban lifestyles. Construction meets the highest standards for green building, with heavy insulation, natural gas heat and solar hot water. Covered parking is limited to eight cars, but there’s room for eight motorcycles and 24 bicycles. Each unit also has room for a cat, according to the rental guidelines.

These allowances appeal to Rheault, who owns a cat, bike and motorcycle. But she still has plenty of questions and is planning to meet with Avesta and visit the project in the coming days. She’s familiar with conventional artist-loft living in old mills and factories, but wonders about stuffing her life into such a small space.

“Four hundred square feet is kind of tight for a creative person,” she said.

Creative people have helped steer the design of Oak Street Lofts.

The Maine College of Art hosted a neighborhood forum and focus groups last year to offer suggestions. The school sees the project as complementing the housing it offers for students, and creating a new option for graduates who stay in the area and open businesses and studio practices.

“Maine College of Art is thrilled to have affordable, artist-friendly efficiency apartments adding to the vibrancy of the Arts District and growing the region’s creative economy,” said Jessica Tomlinson, a spokeswoman for the school.

The project also is being cheered by Portland’s Downtown District. The business group, headquartered around the block, had expressed the desire for a street-level design that would create visual interest for pedestrians. The ground-floor gallery will do that, according to Janis Beitzer, the executive director.

“Avesta’s Oak Street project is a great example of how affordable housing for artists can be developed and keep artists actually living in Portland’s Art District,” she said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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