Rocco Risbara, a developer for The Downs, says to keep on track, the project needs to be exempted from the town’s annual residential building permit caps. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

A community is taking shape at The Downs in Scarborough, a sprawling 525-acre landscape of  woods, grasslands, wetlands and construction.

While much of the property is made up of empty lots or half-built structures, as one would expect from a construction site, some new  apartment buildings, condos and single and multi-family homes are either already occupied or almost ready for tenants.

Completed residential areas at The Downs are already beginning to fill. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

Rocco Risbara, a managing member in one of the development companies, estimates that when it is complete, The Downs will have “a couple of thousand” living units.

To keep the development on track for that, however, Risbara of Crossroads Holdings LLC and other Downs developers say they need the town to exempt them from its yearly building permit caps.

“One thing we do need from the town right now is we need relief from their growth management ordinance,” Risbara said.

The ordinance was put in place nearly 30 years ago and limits the number of residential units that can be built per year, said Scarborough Town Council Chairperson John Cloutier.

“The intent is to help protect against excessive growth overwhelming our resources, whether it be the school system, transportation network, police, fire or public works,” Cloutier said. “The idea is to pace the growth so that we can plan for it appropriately.”

The Downs current occupancy is 400 residents, according to Risbara.

“(S)ince everyone assumes new housing is bad because it adds children to the school system, I’d note to you that we have 27 children that live at the Downs and attend school in Scarborough,” Risbara said. “Not a very big impact!”

Under the current terms of the ordinance, 144 residential units are permitted to be built in Scarborough per year, which is the town’s 10-year average growth rate, Cloutier said. That does not apply to affordable housing which has no cap.

Typically, developers are allotted up to 20% of those permits, but because The Downs is located in a town “growth district,” designated as such to encourage growth, Downs developers can receive up to 30%, which allows them to build 44 residential units per year.

Risbara says 44 permits a year fall far short. He needs hundreds more.

“We need to be building in excess of 300 units per year,”  he said.

The ordinance allows some exceptions, some of which have already been granted to The Downs, Cloutier said.

Construction is taking place throughout the 525-acre site. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

“We exempted 104 units this year because they showed us some work that’s in the pipeline and we want to be supportive,” he said.

The developers of The Downs recently applied for an exemption from the ordinance, Risbara said.

“It’s pretty open-ended,” Cloutier said. “They’re looking for more of a blanket exemption … it’s not something that we really anticipated.”

The Town Council is set to hold a workshop on Dec. 15 on the issue.

Cloutier says that the town is proud of how quickly the first phases of residential development have been completed, and “they’ve exceeded expectations in many ways.”

“It’s coming up on four years since we bought it,”  Risbara said. “I think we’ve accomplished a lot here in that timeframe.”

When complete, The Downs will have “a couple of million” square feet in commercial space, Risbara said, ranging from retailers to offices to light industrial. The Innovation District, which will be home to much of that commercial space, sold out quickly.

“The brokers told us it would take 10 years to sell,” he said. “We’ve sold it out in two years.”

The developers bought the property in 2018 and have now worked on it through two “normal” years and nearly two pandemic years.

“The pandemic has been a real enigma for a lot of people. It hurt us badly and it helped us tremendously,” Risbara said.

One instance comes in the form of labor.

“We’re suffering greatly, as is everyone in the market, in labor,” he said. “I don’t know where the labor went.”

For a multi-decade project like The Downs, though, a temporary shortage of labor is one thing, the longevity of labor is another.

“There’s not a lot of younger people getting into the (construction) business, which is unfortunate,” he said. “You look at The Downs, we’ve got a lot of work ahead us. There’s, maybe not a whole career, but a steady job.”

WEX Inc. dealt the project a blow when it pulled out of plans to occupy a 200,000-square-foot office building at The Downs.

“The pandemic hits and guess what? Nobody needs an office. So we lost that deal,” said Risbara, who said he has hope that the deal could wind up getting done in the future.

While the demand for office spaces is down, others are up.

“The residential demand surged and the light industrial demand has surged,” he said.

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