May 12, 2011

At Gilman Place, school's out, housing's in — and so is Gov. LePage

By Amy Calder
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE — Gov. Paul LePage was back in his hometown Wednesday to help celebrate the opening of a $10 million affordable housing project that he supported while mayor.

click image to enlarge

People tour an apartment Wednesday during an open house at the new Gilman Place affordable housing complex in Waterville. The blackboard at right was once used when the building was the former Waterville High School.

Staff photo by David Leaming

click image to enlarge

Gov. Paul LePage addressed the crowd Wednesday during an open house at the new Gilman Place affordable housing complex at the former Gilman Street School in Waterville.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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Gilman Place is a 35-unit apartment building that was once Waterville High School and has been restored to historic standards.

"Congratulations to the 35 families who will make this their home," LePage said.

About 200 people — including city officials, developers, bankers, and area residents — crowded into a wide hallway to hear LePage and eight others speak.

LePage said he thinks Waterville has a bright future and he alluded to another project under way that will benefit the city.

"I believe that before the end of the year, you'll hear more good news about the city of Waterville," he said.

Later he said he could not yet discuss the project.

The Portland firm Developers Collaborative, received city approval for the Gilman Place project three years ago, when LePage was mayor. The proposal faced opposition from neighbors who feared the development would devalue their homes and increase noise and crime.

Earlier efforts by private developers to convert the building into offices had failed. Then, Kevin Bunker, Jim Hatch and Richard Berman, of Developers Collaborative, approached the city government.

Meetings were held to get public input, the developers made changes to the plans and construction started last year. The project focused on energy efficiency.

LePage said Waterville had struggled with housing needs and lacked affordable housing. He said he was proud to have been part of the project's debate and is happy to see it come to fruition.

"It wasn't always easy, but we took each obstacle one at a time," he said.

Not everybody was happy about Tuesday's occasion. Lawrence Bloom, a neighbor who opposed the development, placed a banner on his lawn that was critical of LePage and the project.

Many of those who attended the three-hour open house Wednesday were former Waterville High students who attended the school and came to see the building's transformation.

"That was Miss Clarke's room," said Judy Cabana, pointing to a large wood door next to where LePage spoke.

Cabana, 72, graduated from the school in 1958, when it housed only three grades -- 10th, 11th and 12th. Her husband, Waterville Board of Education Chairman Lionel "Lee" Cabana, graduated in 1954, and their grandson attended kindergarten in the building years later.

"I think it's super," Judy Cabana said of the building. "I would highly recommend it to everybody and anyone who needs this kind of a facility. I can't believe the transformation."

The one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments have kitchen appliances, restored hardwood floors and the original trim around the windows. Rents range from $476 to $725, depending on tenant income. The required annual income range is $20,050 for one person, to a maximum of $34,320 for a family of four. Heat, hot water and wireless Internet are included, but electricity is not.

Judy Goodell, who manages the building for Preservation Management, Inc., of South Portland, said 10 tenants have moved into the building and four more are scheduled to move in next week. Bill Bois, a 1957 graduate of the school and senior class president, was enjoying the memories as he toured the facility.

"It's got a lot of character and yet, it's modern," he said. "They reclaimed the old wood floors beautifully."

The high school moved out in the 1960s. The building, which became known as Gilman Street School, housed various entities after that, including the junior high school, an alternative school, kindergarten, police storage and, finally, the superintendent's office.

Bunker, of Developers Collaborative, said he and his partners shared a vision for transforming an important community building that already was located in the right place -- near downtown and using on existing infrastructure. It was a cultural landmark, historical touchstone and a means of providing quality workforce housing to those who might otherwise not be able to afford it, Bunker said.

"The idea that sprawl is what people want is belied by the fact that we are literally buried in rental applications," he said. "This is what people want, so let's do more of it and create more sustainable authentic communities by preserving what we have and doing development right, staying true to the principles of smart growth."

Tuesday marked the formal transition of the building's ownership to Coastal Enterprises, Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Wiscasset. The company's president and chief executive officer, Ron Phillips, was master of ceremonies at Tuesday's event.

Maine Housing awarded federal tax credits to the project and controlled its funding. Phillips said the redevelopment process included the building's nomination to the historic register.

The developers submitted plans to the National Parks Service and State Historic Preservation Office, which approved the plans. That triggered release of a $5.8 million equity investment in Low Income Housing Tax Credits by the National Equity Fund, and $2.2 million in State Historic Tax Preservation Credits by Coastal Enterprises.

The project received $245,000 in Community Development Block Grant money issued to the city and $1.7 million from Maine Housing.

Amy Calder -- 861-9247

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Additional Photos

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One of the new apartment units in the new 33-unit apartment complex at the newly renovated Gilman Street School in Waterville.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans


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