2018-01-11 / News

City could allow smaller living spaces in certain properties

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – A change to allow more smaller units in a building will appear before city council with a negative recommendation from the planning board over concerns about how the city can promote affordable housing and redevelopment simultaneously.

The planning board voted against the measure, which would affect buildings that immediately surround downtown, two to one on Wednesday, Jan. 3. William Southwick and Roch Angers voted against the proposal and Richard Potvin voted for it. Board chairman Larry Patoine did not vote on the measure and board members Matthew Boutet, Jennifer Burke and Clement Fleurent were not present. However, all the planning board can offer is a recommendation to city council, which can still approve the change. The proposed amendment to the zoning ordinance would only affect existing buildings in the Maine Street Revitalization District 2, which surrounds the core of downtown and includes most of Bradbury, Birch and Foss streets.

City Planner Greg Tansley said that in MSRD-2, buildings are allowed one unit for every 2,000 square-feet of lot area. If a developer were to upgrade a building, for example, by installing hardwood as opposed to carpeted floors or stainless steel appliances instead of white enamel ones, they would be allowed one unit in a building for every 650-square-feet of living area. Tansley said based on a few examples he looked at, buildings could have one or two more units under this change, however this won’t be true for the entire district.

“If people are willing to convert buildings into condominiums to promote home ownership they could receive a density bonus, that’s the other idea behind it,” Tansley said. “Since MSRD-2 surrounds downtown, we can encourage increased density in areas we want to see in a walkable downtown area.”

Shirley Bowen, executive director of Seeds of Hope Neighborhood Center at 35 South St., said she was concerned how the impact of increased density in the downtown would affect the city’s poor and working poor populations. She said if prices increase, those who can’t afford to live downtown will be pushed out and unable to access services like the ones Seeds of Hope provides.

“We need to be looking at better transportation for folks who are pushed to the outskirts. How are they going to be sure they can get to where they need to without expanded bus service? I’m really worried about the impact. The marginalized once again become even more marginalized just because they don’t have financial resources.”

Guy Gagnon, director of Biddeford Housing Authority, addressed the planning board with similar concerns.

“Our mission is to promote quality affordable housing,” Gagnon said. “The board in general has done an excellent job in the past from what I can see … but I think this step goes too far. It assumes developers are doing things the right way. I think there’s a lot of room for abuse of this type, especially when talking about dealing with quality issues. I don’t see how that is really an enforceable item. It will create numerous conflicts, in my estimate, between assessing, the code office and developers. I wouldn’t be planning on conflict but I can see that happening. We would love to see more home ownership in downtown neighborhoods. That’s the way it was years ago when neighborhoods were thriving. I think it should be done in an incremental approach.”

Gagnon suggested the city reduce lot size requirements from 2,000 square-feet to either 1,500 or 1,000 or assist first time homebuyers with a down payment.

“That’s a more sustainable approach, proven in communities all over the country to try to revitalize multiple family neighborhoods, including Portland in the Danforth Street area,” he said.

Mathew Eddy, the city’s new economic development director, said he will integrate 2018 census data over the course of the next year with the city’s geographic information system to better understand what housing needs are downtown.

“Biddeford is still considered to be relatively affordable in the larger market, which is a good thing,” he said. “For people that live here in southern Maine there is pretty good demand for housing, particularly as we understand it, market rate rental units. We haven’t done a hard and fast analysis yet. That is something we want to do over the next year to get a better handle on it.”

Market rate housing does not have rent restrictions imposed by affordable housing laws. According to Trulia.com, the median rent in Biddeford is $1,600 per month.

Executive Director of Heart of Biddeford Delilah Poupore said having a diverse mix of housing available will ensure the city avoids displacing people.

“I used to live in Santa Barbara, California,” she said. “Millionaires lived there and vacationed all over the world but the employees who worked at the restaurants and hotels had to live 45 minutes away because they couldn’t afford to live in town. That’s not sustainable development. There needs to be good jobs and it needs to be affordable for people to live here and work in those jobs. Some people would call that gentrification. More job opportunities, places to shop, a booming economy, and people are happier, sounds good. Then there’s the worst definition of gentrification, when it’s unaffordable or exclusive and when that happens it’s not sustainable.”

Southwick said he’d support trying out the bonus in a smaller section of the city.

“This change could limit or significantly impact the ability for working class families to find a place to live within the city,” Southwick said. “If we did it in a smaller neighborhood as a test I’d be more supportive so we can see the impact. Doing it through the entire MSRD-2 zone, I couldn’t support.”

Poupore said supporting existing businesses while encouraging growth will help balance the city and protect those who struggle with affordable housing.

“I would like Biddeford to be on the forefront of thinking about gentrification,” she said. “We don’t want to wake up one morning and say, ‘oh my gosh look what we did.’ There was an area in Washington, D.C. that had a lot of blight yet people were starting to move in and develop there, taking over from the neighborhood that had been there. So planners in that part of the city made requirements for developers coming in to keep part of a property for a local business that had already been there to expand and give them a 10-year lease at an affordable rate. That way, existing businesses have an opportunity to thrive within new development and not live under the threat they’re going to be priced out within a year or two. That exact example might not apply to Biddeford, but we need to think about what policies we have that can increase inclusion and increase the likelihood everybody can benefit from the city’s revitalization.”

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