An early rendering of an affordable senior housing project proposed for Stroudwater Street in Westbrook. Contributed / Westbrook Housing

The Westbrook Planning Board gave a lukewarm response Tuesday to the appearance of an affordable housing project for seniors proposed for a site next to the National Guard Armory on Stroudwater Street.

The Westbrook Housing Authority will revisit the design after board members said the 55-unit building was “boxy and “hospital-like.” It also will look at options to connect the project’s residents to downtown after the National Guard said it will not allow a sidewalk to be built over its federally owned property.

Westbrook Planning Board members said the design of the proposed 55-unit building was too “boxy” and looked like a hospital. Contributed / Westbrook Planning Board

“I was wondering if you could make it look more residential; it looks like a hospital,” Planning Board member Jason Frazier said. “But overall it is a great design.”

Members Robin Tannenbaum and Larry McWilliams referred to the design plan as “boxy.”

“It looks too commercialized,” McWilliams said. “This one project is on the main corridor that’s coming in and out of our city.”

Members John Turcotte and Chairperson Rene Daniel said the design should mirror that of the high school across the street.

“The other buildings (from Westbrook Housing) that have come before us are beautiful, but you need to take in what is across the street,” Daniel said.

The design of the school and the armory was taken into account, but bricks could not be used for the apartment building because they are too costly, said Tyler Norod, director of the Westbrook Development Corporation, which works with the Westbrook Housing Authority.

“We can maybe explore the canopy or how the roofline works,” Norod said.

The sidewalk issue is “a major impediment,” Westbrook Housing Authority Chris LaRoche said at the meeting.

The original plan called for a sidewalk to be installed across the Guard property, but the Housing Authority was told the Guard may need that space for future parking.

“Knowing the sidewalk is something we may not be able to put in, I have mentioned we are willing to come back and (add to) the existing crosswalk at the high school by the superintendent’s office. We are looking at reworking that sidewalk,” LaRoche said.

The National Guard’s federal status can supersede the city’s authority, according to City Planner Jennie Franceschi, and they don’t necessarily need to work with the Planning Board.

The apartments will be available to couples 55 and older with an annual income not exceeding $63,950, according to the housing authority. The median annual income for an individual in the Portland Metro area – which includes Westbrook – is about $31,500, according to 2019 census data, compared to $29,000 in the state.

Just over 7,500 Westbrook residents, or 30%, are age 55 and above, according to 2019 census figures provided by LaRoche.

The housing project will help meet the need for some of the approximately 1,200 people on the waiting list for apartments for older residents through Westbrook Housing.

“Westbrook Housing Authority currently has a waitlist of 1,300 households,” Norod previously told the American Journal.  “According to MaineHousing’s 2020 Annual Report, we need to build approximately 25,000 new units of affordable housing across the state to meet market demand.”

Meanwhile, the Housing Authority is committing about $250,000 to build a new skating rink to replace the skating area that would be eliminated by the new senior apartment building. The rink would come at no cost to the city, LaRoche said.

A site for the rink, which would have a concrete base, making it easier to maintain, has not been chosen. Potential locations include Riverbank Park, a site near the dog park by Hannaford, or at a field off Foster Street, he said.

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