Amid parking concerns, Bath council nixes housing proposal for former YMCA lot

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BATH — Concerns from residents about the impact on downtown parking convinced the City Council Wednesday to reject a development plan for the vacant former YMCA lot at 26 Summer St.

The council in May heard two redevelopment proposals. The Newheight Group of Portland, in conjunction with Portland-based Community Housing of Maine, called for a mixed-use development that would contain market rate housing as well as commercial/retail space.

Due to timing and other opportunities, Newheight recently withdrew its proposal, Bath Economic Development Director Scott LaFlamme told the council.

Portland-based Szanton Co. – which has completed redevelopment of the former John E.L. Huse School into 59 mixed-income apartments – partnered with the Bath Housing organization to present the other proposal.

The company suggested a mixed-income rental housing project with a three-story brick facade that would face Summer Street and contain up to 49 apartments. The building would step up to four stories farther back from the road, and the lower portion of the property, accessed from Elm Street, would offer parking and driveway access.

Szanton proposed eight to 10 parking spaces on site, with shared parking in other city lots, where apartment dwellers would tend only to use the lots at night. Providing all parking in a garage on the former YMCA property could cost $1 million, which would reduce the affordability of the project, developer Nathan Szanton told the council.

The company also proposed a tax increment financing agreement with the city, through which half of Szanton’s property taxes would be abated for 15 years to help the project attain financing.

While most elements of the project received little criticism, the parking proposal elicited opposition from people who packed into the Council Chambers at City Hall – despite Szanton’s plan to rent monthly spaces from the city for most of the building’s tenants.

“We understand that adding more parking to downtown Bath may be perceived as increasing congestion and reducing parking availability,” Szanton company Project Manager Andy Jackson wrote in July 26 memo to LaFlamme. “We have closely studied the parking in downtown Bath and suggest that our proposed parking plan would fit the existing conditions well and offer the city new revenue while maintaining parking availability downtown.”

Jackson said during the six times he studied numbers at the police department lot on Water Street, there were at least 23 open spaces during the day, “which is consistent with what we would ask for in terms of daytime usage (there) … we would ask for more at night.”

At nine other public lots, “I counted collectively on average 106 empty spaces,” Jackson added. “We just don’t see a huge parking crunch in the downtown.”

Several people disagreed, including as Leslie Dolinger, director of the Patten Free Library, which sits across the street from the YMCA lot.

“I’ve been director for eight years, and almost not a day goes by when there isn’t an issue with parking,” she said, noting that she often hears from patrons who can’t find a space.

“What’s to say, if we had a (development) proposal that didn’t provide parking, (and) you have someone that’s coming to visit (an apartment) resident … they’re going to just park in the public (library) lot,” Dolinger suggested, “and there is nothing that we can about it, or nothing that prohibits that.”

“Having residents without proper parking will be devastating to our operations,” she added.

Former Councilor Steve Brackett, who co-owns Brackett’s Market at 185 Front St., agreed with the need to expand affordable housing, and commended Szanton’s work on the Huse School.

He called Szanton’s parking proposal “a good plan on paper, but I really question if that will work on a February night with blowing snow and 10 below zero, and somebody’s going to park in the police station and walk (to the apartment), when it’s going to be much easier just to freeload somewhere.”

A few residents echoed the need for expanded workforce housing in Bath – a sentiment voiced to the council in May by Jess Irish, director for housing at Bath Housing, who said, “We’re currently experiencing waits for between two and three years” for housing.

Linda Nelson of Bedford Street said she had successfully dealt with parking congestion issues while living in Stonington.

Working now for the state, she said, “What we find in community after community is that dense downtowns, putting housing downtown, putting people downtown … does create the vibrancy. … The negative impacts of perceived lack of parking never occur, because the positive benefits of dense housing and dense business always far outweigh those concerns.”

Noting the importance of workforce housing to the character of a community, she said, “What we see around the state is that towns that maintain their local character are the ones that provide workforce housing and don’t let things just become developed by the market, so that they’re condos and just high-end housing.”

Bath Housing Executive Director Debora Keller said a growing issue identified by several local organizations is “we’re not meeting the needs of our workforce. … The rental housing we do have is experiencing rapid price escalation. … We’ve seen over a 10 percent increase just in the last six months.”

After deliberation, Councilor Greg Page moved to reject Szanton’s proposal and separately for the city to develop a new, more finely tuned request for proposals for the property. The council agreed 5-1, with Councilor Sean Paulhus opposed, with the first part of Page’s motion, and then unanimously in support of the second.

Paulhus said he had hoped to table Szanton’s proposal so it could be revised.

Councilor Bernie Wyman abstained because he is a member of the Bath Housing Development Corp. board of directors, and Councilor Terry Nordmann was absent.

Szanton said after the meeting that he does not plan to submit another proposal, adding, “I think we’ve gotten a clear message. … We appreciate the city considering it; it’s clearly not the direction they want to go.”

Keller said the city missed an opportunity. “It’s a phenomenal site for residential housing,” she said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

The Bath City Council on Aug. 2 rejected the Szanton Co.’s development plan for the vacant former YMCA lot at 26 Summer St., prompted by concerns from residents about the impact on downtown parking.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.