A Historic School Becomes Senior Housing in Brewer, Maine
The building that housed Brewer Middle School in the city of Brewer, Maine, a town with fewer than 10,000 residents just across the Penobscot River from Bangor, had sat vacant since 2010. The former school, which first opened in 1926 as a high school, had closed after the town consolidated five schools into a single new community school for prekindergarten through eighth grade. Rather than tear the old school down, the community was determined to find a new use for the historic yellow brick building. In 2012, a walk through the former school inspired Brewer Housing Authority executive director Gordon Stitham to envision the next chapter in the building’s story: redevelopment as 28 affordable one-bedroom apartments for low-income seniors. The building, now known as Somerset Place, opened in December 2015 and is fully leased.
From School to Housing
Stitham had already completed a project using low-income housing tax credits and was seeking another when the former school became available. Before the housing agency moved forward on the project, however, it signed a contract with the city’s redevelopment corporation to remediate asbestos in the building and a small amount of lead paint and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) on the premises. The redevelopment corporation completed this work with a grant through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program.
Zoning changes were also needed to convert the property to residential use. Linda Johns, Brewer’s city planner, explained that the proposed density of Somerset Place exceeded the accepted densities in all of Brewer’s zoning districts. To address this problem, the city created the Adaptive Reuse District, its first floating zone. Eligible sites include existing buildings of at least 10,000 square feet with proposed uses such as multifamily, senior, or affordable housing or a limited set of commercial uses. The Somerset Place proposal met these criteria, which cleared the way for the building’s renovation.
The adaptive reuse district also allows the planning board to grant flexibility for parking and setbacks if the board determines a proposed project’s design is appropriate. The planning board approved such modifications for Somerset Place because the senior and low-income households anticipated for Somerset Place typically have no more than one car each.
Maintaining Historic Details and Meeting Contemporary Design Needs
Although the three-story building has a lot of character, notes Stitham, it was not listed in the National Register of Historic Places and therefore was not eligible for historic tax credits to fund the building’s conversion into apartments until the housing agency made changes that restored the building’s architectural integrity so that it could be placed on the National Register. These modifications included changing the color of the hallway flooring to its original brown. Replacing the building’s windows — which were not original to the building but which the housing agency wanted to update to be more energy efficient — required new windows that were the same size as the 1926 windows.
After the building was listed on the National Register, the work done to convert the building to residences maintained all the original doors, the stage in the auditorium, the concrete bleachers in the gym, and the tin ceilings in the former classrooms. To retain the ceilings while also making space for plumbing and electrical systems, the designers installed dropped ceilings in the apartment hallways and bathrooms. Another design challenge, renovating the building’s elevator to comply with standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), required reconfiguring the lobby and adjacent rooms. In addition, the designers kept period details such as trophies and photographs from the building’s school days to decorate hallways and other common spaces.
Construction was completed in December 2015. More than 150 people attended the building’s open house, from prospective tenants to Brewer residents who had attended the school or knew someone who had. The event was “very emotional,” says Stitham, because the community associates many memories with the school — in fact, some of Somerset Place’s tenants graduated from the school when it was still a high school.
The resulting 28 one-bedroom apartments comply with ADA standards and feature amenities to support aging in place, such as walk- or roll-in showers and grab bars. The building is also near a bus stop enabling transportation accessibility. The apartments are reserved for people 55 and over earning 60 percent or less of the area median income, or $25,980. Five apartments are set aside for people experiencing homelessness.
Residents gather frequently in the gym and the auditorium for community events, including monthly potlucks and birthday parties, coffee meetings three mornings a week, and group exercise classes. The auditorium has a 20-foot screen that residents can use to watch movies. Groups from outside the property also regularly visit to offer programs, including a group of senior musicians and students from the University of Maine’s music program.
Somerset Place cost $4.3 million to renovate, funded primarily through federal and state low-income housing tax credits and historic preservation tax credits. The Brewer Housing Authority formed a limited liability company to buy the vacant building from the city. Under this ownership structure, the housing agency charges a fee to manage the property, which it uses to fund programs and subsidize rents.
Realizing Shared Goals
Somerset Place succeeded in part because transforming the school into affordable senior housing met a common goal of the housing agency, the city, and residents to save a historic building and enhance the residential character of the neighborhood, says Johns. Somerset Place also helps meet Brewer’s growing need for affordable senior housing. A quarter of the city’s 4,160 households are headed by people who are at least 65 years old, and more than 200 people aged 55 and over are on the city’s affordable housing waiting list — a number that Stitham expects will continue to grow. Somerset Place also helps Brewer meet the state’s requirement that municipalities ensure that 10 percent of new residential development is affordable.
Interview with Linda Johns, Brewer city planner, 31 May 2017; Interview with Gordon Stitham, 30 May 2017; Brewer Community School. n.d. “Home.” Accessed 6 June 2017; Correspondence from Charlotte Perkins, coordinator of self-sufficiency programs, Brewer Housing Authority, 9 June 2017; Correspondence from Linda Johns, city planner, Brewer, 12 June 2017.×
Interview with Gordon Stitham, 30 May 2017; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. n.d. “Brownfields 2013 Cleanup Grant Fact Sheet: Brewer Redevelopment, LLC, Brewer, ME.” Accessed 2 June 2017; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2016. “Maine Brownfields Funding History (1994 – 2016).” Accessed 5 June 2017.×
Interview with Linda Johns, 31 May 2017.×
Interview with Linda Johns, 31 May 2017.×
Interview with Gordon Stitham, 30 May 2017; Meg Haskell. “This historic schoolhouse offers affordable housing for seniors,” Bangor Daily News, 9 June 2016. Accessed 4 May 2017.×
Interview with Linda Johns, 31 May 2017; Interview with Gordon Stitham, 30 May 2017; U.S. Census Bureau. American Factfinder. “Brewer city, Maine: 2011–2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimate, Housing — Occupancy Characteristics.” Accessed 6 June 2017.×