September 4, 2018
In multi-part series, exclusive to the Maine Real Estate Insider, we’ll provide an up-close look at the most notable commercial development projects of the past year that are helping to fuel Maine’s economy in terms of investment and job creation. MEREDA is proud to recognize responsible development based upon criteria including environmental sustainability, economic impact, energy efficiency, difficulty of the development, uniqueness, social impact and job creation.
Please join with us in celebrating Huse School Apartments.
MEREDA: Describe the building and project.
Huse School Apartments: Huse School Apartments involved the renovation and rehabilitation of the former John E.L. Huse Memorial School, built in 1942 and 1949 in Bath. We re-purposed this elementary school to create 31 apartments and added a new construction wing with 28 apartments, for a total of 59 units. The project was financed using a combination of affordable housing tax credits and historic tax credits. The project also included extensive new sitework surrounding the school and, nearby, a new community playground that benefits residents of the City of Bath.
MEREDA: What was the impetus for this project?
Huse School Apartments: We believe that cities and their downtowns are stronger when residents are able to build and maintain their well-being, careers, and families in quality housing that is plugged into neighborhood services and amenities. We are always looking for new project sites to create housing that supports these beliefs. When we were introduced to the Huse School, we realized that by partnering with the City of Bath we could redevelop a historic building in an established neighborhood, while creating new quality housing in a city with high demand. Nearby amenities include Bath’s modern YMCA, the 5-mile Whiskeag Trail, and the bus line. Downtown Bath (with all of its services and attractions) is a 1/2 mile walk from the Huse School.
MEREDA: That sounds like quite a process. How long were you in the planning stages before construction started?
Huse School Apartments: We first visited the existing school in summer 2014, on a guided tour of potential housing development sites with Deb Keller, Director of Bath Housing. We were able to get the site under contract and began working on permitting and financing throughout 2015 and most of 2016, culminating in construction start August 2016. We opened our doors to residents on July 17, 2017.
MEREDA: Tell us about the most challenging aspect of getting this project completed.
Huse School Apartments: Every project has its own special challenges! Our biggest challenge was dealing with a very tight construction labor market that caused headaches for the entire team throughout the construction process. We had a major subcontractor walk away from the job right after we started, and that caused a ripple effect through the rest of the project.
MEREDA: Something unexpected you learned along the way was…
Huse School Apartments: We learned that there was a rifle range built into the basement of the wing constructed in 1949. When it was built, it was part of the Cold War-era martial culture. Kids were expected to be competent shooters. Now, putting a rifle range into an elementary school seems incredible to us. It just goes to show how far the culture has moved since 1949.
On the development side, we learned during construction that the 1949 wing, which was considered to be not architecturally or historically significant by the National Park Service, was eligible to drive Historic Tax Credits because it was attached to the historic 1942 original structure. Therefore we were able to unlock more tax credit equity than we originally expected, which in turn allowed MaineHousing (the primary funder) to husband its scarce resources of tax credits and subsidies, allowing it to fund more affordable housing projects across the state.
MEREDA: Now that it’s complete, what feature of the project do you think makes it the most notable?
Huse School Apartments: The historic building included a gymnasium with a stage, which we have partially repurposed as the building community room. This is a space with 24’ ceilings, vast expanses of exposed original masonry walls, and refinished hardwood floors with basketball court markings. We certainly don’t have any spaces like this community room in our other buildings. It’s the space where residents are encouraged to gather, and it’s the space we show off the most when we give a tour of the building.