Bath planners table zone change for old hospital

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BATH — The Planning Board on Tuesday unanimously tabled a request to rezone a former hospital at 9 Park St. for greater residential density.

The property – which the city purchased as the Mid Coast Center for Higher Education more than a decade ago, and sold to developer Robert Smith of Phippsburg for $799,000 last May – is zoned Residential 2, which allows a residential density of 9,000 square feet per dwelling.

Smith wants the city to change the zoning to Residential 1, like buildings across the street, to allow dwellings of 6,000 square feet. The Planning Board – which tabled the item until May 6 because information important to the discussion came in Tuesday afternoon – will ultimately make a recommendation to the City Council, which will make the final decision.

The building now serves as an educational and office complex, but has been losing tenants. Current zoning allows the structure to have 35 units, according to a memo to the Planning Board from City Planner Andrew Deci. Changing the zoning to R1 would allow 53 units.

“We have tried and tried and tried to attract more commercial tenants, but this is a neighborhood … it’s not an industrial park,” Smith said last week, noting that current zoning does not allow the building to house retail businesses.

The current density “would be close, whether it could break even or not, financially,” the developer said.

The building meets the criteria for R1 zoning, since it has city water and sewer and is on the bus line, he added.

Smith noted that nearby residents expressed “serious questions,” and that Planning Board members do not want to lose the neighborhood feeling along Park Street, and said he shares that concern.

The apartments would be offered at market rate, smoking and dogs would not be allowed, and Smith’s office would be on site. The exterior would not be changed, and work on the structure would be limited to the interior. A community garden could be built out back, he said, if there is room.

The city’s sale of the building last year triggered sharp criticism from several residents, who claimed the city failed to practice due diligence when it set the sale price, and did not sell the parcel in an appropriate way.

The City Council hired a former Maine Superior Court judge to investigate the process, and he concluded that while the city should have been more transparent about the sale, there was no corruption.

Smith put the property on the market last fall with an asking price of $1.65 million. The price has been down to $895,000 for a few months, but if the building become successful as an apartment building, he said he would like to keep it.

“I will do everything I can do to have this building not become … vacant,” Smith said. “I don’t want to sell it, but if I have to, that’s what I’ll do.”

Regardless of whether the city grants the zoning change, Smith said he plans to put apartments in the building, filling the space as existing tenants move out. Other space in the building could also be rented to smaller commercial tenants, he said.

“There’s a need for nice apartments (in Bath),” Smith said, “and that’s what these would be. … I want people to want to live here, not have to live here.”

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

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.