The Right Equation for Responsible Development: Spotlight on the Motherhouse

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 The Motherhouse in Portland.

MEREDA:  Describe the building and project.

The Motherhouse:  The Motherhouse is a structure built as a convent for the Sisters of Mercy, most of which was completed in 1909.  It’s about 140,000 square feet and we redeveloped most of that, about 115,000 square feet, into 88 apartments.  The apartments are for seniors 55+ and are a mix of affordable and market-rate.  It was financed through a combination of state and federal historic tax credit equity, federal housing tax credit equity from MaineHousing, HOME funds from the city, a tax increment financing package, and some developer capital, as well as several different kinds of debt, also from MaineHousing.

MEREDA:  What was the impetus for this project?

The Motherhouse:  Over time it had become clear that the Motherhouse was the key to the entire campus redevelopment.  Not only is it the most prominent feature of the 20-acre campus, but it was in many ways the most difficult to redevelop. We knew that we would not be able to achieve a feasible master plan without taking on the Motherhouse first.  Affordable housing made sense since we do a lot of that – the rest of the campus was planned to be market rate – and the available sources for affordable housing pair well with the historic tax credits, so we took a shot.  We ended up having to apply twice and just barely were able to pull a complicated budget together.  We then took a little break as somebody decided to sue the City over their rezone of the property, so once that was disposed of, we could finally proceed.

MEREDA:  That sounds like quite a process.  How long were you in the planning stages before construction started?

The Motherhouse:  Developers Collaborative had been working with the initial developer, Seacoast Management, for a couple years on various redevelopment options. Seacoast had been working on it for much longer, well over a decade.  Seacoast actually had an entirely different development plan they put quite a bit of effort into around 2007, but we all know what happened then.  All told I would say DC had 3 years of constant effort to put the project together and get it to construction.

MEREDA:  Tell us about the most challenging aspect of getting this project completed.

The Motherhouse:  It was making the construction budget work with the sources we had available.  The City and MaineHousing really stepped up and helped out to fill the last bit of the gap, but most of the other sources, namely the tax credits, are a function of the costs, so you can back into the amount the budget has to be.  The initial estimates we received were way beyond what we had available. We ended up choosing to work with Portland Builders on the project and it was definitely the right decision.  I think we cut probably 20% out of the budget without losing any scope to speak of, and I am not sure who else could have pulled that off.

MEREDA:  Something unexpected you learned along the way was….

The blower door test was interesting.  It’s amazing how many holes there can be in a large five story century old building.  Chasing them all down and plugging them was quite an endeavor, but we got there in the end.

We also learned a lot as a management company.  It was our first lease up of one of our affordable properties, and our largest.  So, there was a learning curve there and it was impressive to see our team respond.  The great thing about all that was that in the midst of that activity – I won’t use the word chaos – they were able to create community almost instantly.  It’s a really warm, welcoming place today and the biggest reason for that is not the architecture or the financing.  It’s the people that live there and the folks that staff it.  As a developer I think I learned a lot from my team about how they create community, in ways that go beyond good design, good planning and programming, etc.

MEREDA:  Now that it’s complete, what feature of the project do you think makes it the most notable? 

The Motherhouse:  Well, the gold dome is certainly the most recognizable – I often see it when I’m coming into PWM on a flight.  But it’s the interior common spaces that to me are architecturally more interesting.  With historic buildings, you have let the spaces tell you what they want to be – Archetype Architects is great at that.  We have some really jaw-dropping spaces inside that simply can’t be built today.  That’s certainly a part of the community that we’ve been able to create – our residents are as proud of the building as we are.


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