Oleg Opalnyk is halfway through turning the historic Beth Abraham Synagogue in Auburn into 10 high-end apartments complete with chandeliers and pews in the common area.

“I just want to catch that moment, fill the apartments with people who need a place to live,” he said.

Gerry Morin is headed to the Auburn Planning Board this month to pitch 18 new apartments on Broad Street.

“I own other property in town, and they’re always filled and I’m always getting calls for more,” Morin said.

After sitting on the former 38,387-square-foot Pamco Mill on Lewiston’s waterfront for five years, the last three with it empty, Kevin Bunker has decided the time to strike is now.

“We’re going to aggressively try to develop the building,” said Bunker, owner of Developers Collaborative in Portland. “We don’t hold a lot of empty buildings, but we were holding that one, waiting for just the right thing to come along.”

He’s considering as many as 33 apartments for the vacant, 119-year-old mill.

In all, more than 650 housing units are underway or proposed across Lewiston-Auburn. Another 104 opened earlier this year in just two developments.

And that’s not counting the 200 to 300 apartments bound for Lewiston’s Continental Mill.

Behind the massive build-up, developers say: Seniors downsizing. Millennials leaving the nest and their roommates. Employees moving closer to work. Good interest rates, low vacancy rates, willing lenders and people moving up.

“I think a lot of the demand is coming from existing residents in the area who want newer product and are willing to pay the premium that comes along with having those new amenities,” said Tim Millett, a broker at Porta & Co. whose father has proposed a 36-unit development on Auburn’s North River Road and whose grandfather is winding up a 48-unit project at Turner Street and Gracelawn Road.

The first 12 of those 48 will be ready soon.

“Just from marketing it the last few weeks, he already has 30 serious inquiries, a couple signed lease agreements and they’re all local people who just want to live in nice, new clean units,” Millett said.

Another factor behind the housing boom: Continued “heat” from southern Maine.

“We’ve seen it (in the past), when Portland has gotten really overheated, people have looked to Lewiston-Auburn,” said Rick Whiting, head of the Auburn Housing Authority. “They’re not going to get the financing if they don’t have good odds of renting their units, (so it’s also) a vote of confidence with the economy.”

Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett and Auburn City Manager Peter Crichton say, beyond injecting millions into the economy and growing the tax base, they see new housing drawing more residents, more workers and, potentially, more economic growth.

“We are seeing a record number of permits,” Crichton said. “With the new high school being built and a focus on retaining and attracting new residents, Auburn has great potential. We are delighted that developers can see that too.”

Saving $400 a month? It’s worth the drive

Auburn Housing Authority’s and Ethan Boxer-Macomber’s 41-unit project at 62 Spring St. in Auburn filled up in six weeks when it opened last May. Whiting said 200 people applied for space.

Like developments underway at 477 Minot Ave. and 48 Hampshire St., it has a mix of market-rate and subsidized rents.

“With the low-income housing tax credit developments, I don’t think I’ve ever seen three properties underway in Auburn at the same time in that program ever,” Whiting said. “It was indicative of the need for that type of housing in Auburn based on Maine State Housing Authority’s scoring criteria that three developments could be approved in close proximity. I think what’s really reassuring as far as just looking at the rental market, there’s interest from the private sector. It’s not purely the affordable housing part of the market, there are tons of market-rate proposals.”

Millett said that’s also what struck him about the current building trend.

“I talked about this with my dad, and we can’t think of any new market-rate construction that’s taken place in the last two decades,” he said.

Even with that new construction premium, it’s much more affordable to rent in Lewiston-Auburn than Portland, Millett said: About $1,000 for a new one-bedroom or $1,300 for a new two-bedroom here versus $1,200 to $1,400 for a one-bedroom or $1,600 to $1,700 for a two-bedroom in an older building there.

Brian Leahy, director of acquisitions at Saxon Partners, said that company has created a business model around building next to major medical centers, which brought it to Lewiston.

He’s hoping to break ground on 245 studio and one-bedroom units at 10 Avon St., not far from Central Maine Medical Center, in 2020 and see residents moving in in 2021.

“Knowing that winters can be long in Maine, I think people might want to choose to be able to walk to work versus driving five to 10 miles,” Leahy said.

Eric Chinburg, head of Chinburg Properties of New Hampshire, bought the 560,000-square-foot Continental Mill in Lewiston earlier this year and said he’s in the early feasibility design stage.

“It’s such a large building that I think over time we would want to phase in 200 to 300 apartments and a lot of commercial users — retail, light manufacturing, anything allowed by the new zone that can work in conjunction with the mixed-use environment,” Chinburg said. “The ultimate goal will be some mix of nice apartments and nice places for people to work.”

He’ll work on planning and permitting next year.

“If things go really well, we may start some construction on some phase prior to the end of 2020,” Chinburg said.

‘Challenges we have to overcome’

From his office next to Kennedy Park, Community Concepts CEO Shawn Yardley can walk by spots for 150-plus housing units in under 10 minutes that he hopes to see take shape in the next two years.

Two of the three major developments, for 66 and 64 units, would be split 50-50 with market-rate and subsidized housing, part of an ambitious, “transformational” plan unveiled by the city earlier this year.

Developed with a Choice Neighborhood grant, what he calls Site 1 will take up the length of a block along . Site 2 will take up almost an entire city block on Pine and Bartlett with some dilapidated tenements there due to come down in early December.

Anyone being displaced and losing a home now or at Maple Knoll, an older, 41-unit U-shaped development earmarked to come down as part of the plan, will have first crack at one of the new units.

Community Concepts will apply for federal funding with several other partners — he hopes both the city and Lewiston Housing Authority — next year and hopefully learn next winter if those funds come through.

In the meantime, “we’re going to be reaching out to seek a development partner, and it may be more than one, that will join with us,” Yardley said. “One of the challenges we have to overcome: Who is willing to take some risks with us? We’re all taking risks in a certain sense.”

With many details yet to be worked out, including costs and which would be built first, Site 1 or 2, Community Concepts has also been buying other properties downtown as it sees them.

“One of the things we’ve been concerned about as this gets talked about is the idea that it’s maybe enticing for speculators to come in and gain control, because if it’s (a property needed for the plan or a land swap) that we need, it might be more valuable,” Yardley said. “We’ve had to be flexible and opportunistic in terms of what has become available.”

Barrett, the Lewiston city administrator, said the city had already identified a lack of a full range of housing options.

New projects will offer “housing that will be attractive to elements of the market that haven’t been able to find what they would like to find – such as, for example, residential space in renovated mills with high ceilings, large windows, brick walls and wood beams,” he said. “Similarly, the Saxon project would provide new small unit rental space that would be attractive to singles/couples getting started and/or on temporary assignments.”

In part, some of the new housing replaces what’s been lost: 501 units have been demolished in Lewiston since 2006, according to City Planner Doug Greene.

Barrett is anticipating, as the new projects go up, more will come.

Millett is anticipating a wait and see.

“I’m thinking what we’re seeing right now in front of the planning boards is all that we’ll see for next year,” he said. “I see developers wanting to see how the market absorbs all these units that are in planning before planning for more.”

‘All options are on the table’

Bunker said Developers Collaborative approached the owner of 477 Minot Ave., right next to Fairview Elementary School, four years ago, asking if he’d consider selling the property and he passed.

“A couple years ago, he called me out of the blue and said, ‘Are you still interested in that lot?’ ” Bunker said. “Auburn is a good area for growth; that location right next to the school is really what made it work. Senior housing, if you can be next to a grocery store, great, and family housing, if you’re right next to a school, it’s great. Couldn’t get much closer.”

The first building in that 36-unit development will be ready this month.

“I think we’re working with potential tenants on every single unit,” he said. “We certainly have availability in the other two buildings.”

He’s still feeling out plans for the former Pamco Mill in Lewiston. The project didn’t receive Maine State Housing Authority financing on the first try.

“We’re actually talking to a (commercial) tenant right now who may be potentially interested in some space in the building, and that would maybe impact whether or not we would even need to go for Maine State Housing financing,” Bunker said. “Pretty much the story has not been written for that one. All options are on the table; we’d love to make a market-rate work down there.”

He hopes to firm that up in 2020.

The mill “was a great size, and it was a good price, and it was right in the middle of a revitalization district, right in the path of where the city wanted all its growth to be,” Bunker said. “We said we wanted to be a part of it.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.