The former Saco Lowell shop at 59 Elm St. in Biddeford may be redeveloped into 100 market rate apartments. The city council recently voted to continue the process of entering into a Credit Enhancement Agreement with Port Property Management. Tammy Wells Photo

BIDDEFORD — A long vacant, dilapidated mill building situated along a gateway to Biddeford is poised to be one of the latest to be transformed into housing.

Port Property Management plans to purchase and develop the former Saco Lowell building at 59 Elm St., creating 100 market rate apartments on the upper four floors. The lower two floors, which are limited in height, would be converted into self-storage facilities.

In a narrow 5-4 vote, the Biddeford City Council on Oct. 20 agreed to approve the terms of an agreement with Port Property Management, which sets in motion the process for entering into a 20-year credit enhancement agreement, or CEA. Under the terms of the agreement, the city would retain 15 percent of the property tax assessed on the new value for the first five years of the agreement, 25 percent in years six through 10; and 50 percent in years 11 to 20.

The mill, which manufactured machinery used in the textile industry, was constructed in 1900, and is assessed by the city at $534,700. It is currently owned by a company called Fifty Nine Elm Street LLC, with a Portland address, according to Biddeford property records.

Port Property Management recently redeveloped the Riverdam mill, and is leasing apartments for spring occupancy.

Some councilors favoring the plan noted that even with a credit enhancement agreement in place, the city would receive considerably more in property tax than it does now.

Councilor William Emhiser said he currently supports the CEA because the building has stood vacant and is ripe for development — but added he also wants to see the final joint development agreement.

The proposal comes back to the council for a vote once the JDA is finalized.

“I don’t think I’ve ever voted against a CEA or tax increment financing agreement until tonight,” said Councilor Michael Ready. “This has nothing to do with the developer, and God bless him, I hope it thrives, but I’m not …  supporting using city tax dollars for market rate apartments being developed. We have other pressing priorities.”

Ready said his decision has nothing to do with the developer or the project, “but I’d like us to work on (a) project Biddeford residents could afford.”

Councilor Norman Belanger noted the building has been vacant for a long time and is a gateway to the city. He said he doesn’t see the CEA as spending taxpayer dollars, but  rather it’s “not taking 100 cents on the dollar” of the increased value. “If it sits another five to 10 years undeveloped, it doesn’t do us any good,” he said.

The council has made it clear it would like to see proposals for affordable housing, said Belanger. “This project has nothing directly to do with affordable housing. I think this project stands on its own merits.”

City Manager James Bennett noted the council was to host a workshop Tuesday, Oct 27 to discuss affordable housing and their specific goals around that issue.

“This particular building has been vacant for a long time,” said Mayor Alan Casavant, recalling a fire there 50 years ago. “Many developers have looked at it and no one wanted to put money into it … and two floors can’t be used for housing,” said Casavant. “A CEA is important because otherwise the odds of it staying vacant are pretty high.”

In earlier discussions with the developer, workforce or affordable housing was to be a considered, but the apparent expense to remodel the structure cause that proposal to be nixed, which also changed the terms of the CEA. With some affordable housing included, the development company would have retained 100 percent of the tax dollars associated with the increased value of the property for the first five years, and 75 percent in the following five years, according to a memo prepared for the council by Planning and Development Director Mathew Eddy.

Biddeford developers have most recently added 50 units to the city’s housing inventory; 200 more are under construction, and 250 more are proposed, Eddy estimated.

As well as the property tax arrangement, terms of the agreement spell out that the developer agrees to reserve easements and construct pathways that connect the Biddeford RiverWalk between the railroad underpass (connecting to Pearl Street point) and Elm Street. As well, the developer would reserve the future ability to connect the second phase of this project, currently proposed parking, to a new parking garage on Pearl Street and provide sufficient space to serve as a multimode public station.

Voting in favor were Councilors Stephen St. Cyr, Marc Lessard, Amy Clearwater, Emhiser and Belanger. Opposed were Councilors Robert Quattrone, Doris Ortiz, council President John McCurry, and Ready.

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