River Views

Biddeford-Saco Resurgence Continues To Move Forward
 To quote Stephen Stills, “there’s something happening here.” Here being the Biddeford-Saco area and specifically the downtown areas of these two small cities conjoined by the Saco River. One of the most industry-intensive and bustling areas of commerce in the state, and at one point in the country, over the last century and a half, the area fell into a state of disarray and disrepair as the textile industry slowly disappeared from these shores.
Globalization and the inclusion of China into the World Trade Organization in the 90s sounded the death knell for the Pepperell Mill company and the associated businesses that sprang up in the area decades ago. All that remained was the hulking masses of the once-full mill buildings themselves, slowly decaying as they were unceremoniously abandoned by their owners.
The decay, fortunately, didn’t proceed to the point of no return as the buildings remained structurally sound and ready to be reborn into the spaces you can now visit in a number of the buildings, with more and more coming on line, as residential, retail and office spaces for hundreds of people. And more is on the way as this article will attempt to detail. We’ll almost certainly be missing some of the smaller developments that may be happening under the radar but we hope to touch as many of the major development bases as we can now.
This is by no means a definitive survey of all that is happening here right now, nor is it intended to be because this process that is playing out here is probably going to continue for years to come and we hope to be here to continue to chronicle it as it unfolds. 
There have been many instances of urban redevelopment and gentrification happening all over the country in the last few decades and every area is different with its own quirks and idiosyncracies. The Biddeford-Saco area is the same but there are also some major advantages here that are helping to propel the area forward.
The first is the river. Rivers have spawned cities and whole civilizations   over the centuries and the Saco River is no different. The cities of Biddeford and Saco wouldn’t exist without the river and the cheap energy it supplied for mill owners. It continues to provide a focal point for the area to this day and will far into the future, not as an energy source any longer but as an element that binds the communities together and provides scenic beauty.
Secondly, there are the buildings we just mentioned. This aggregation of buildings may be completely unique in our country. This concentration of millions of  square feet of space next to a river provides a ready-built opportunity for development in a number of ways and visionary people have for the past several years started to unlock the vast potential that is here.
What has also helped is a federal program that provides tax breaks for developers to renovate these historic buildings. Without these, it would be more difficult for developers to invest the kind of money required to tackle such large projects.
These aren’t the only reasons, of course. Over the last decade or so, for example, the University of New England has become a top quality university and is home to over 12,000 students. And its geographic location, including easy access to Boston using Amtrak, is also attractive for both businesses and residents. In not much more than an hour, area residents can be on the Rt. 128 tech corridor outside of Boston, for example, making it a viable commute for many people.
The entire redevelopment process here really started in 2004-5 when property developer Doug Sanford first purchased the Biddeford Textile Mill. Since then Sanford has spent upwards of $13 million on buying and renovating over one million square feet of space in mill buildings including the Pepperell Mill Complex, the latest property that Sanford has redeveloped and currently home to 100 apartments and another 100 commercial spaces.
Once the ball started rolling, other developers became involved over the years. Tom Watson, Tim Harrington and Eric Chinburg are three others who have either developed or are in the process of developing properties as well as the latest arrivals, Jim Brady and Brian Eng. 
Tom Watson was responsible for the River Dam project and The Lofts at Saco Falls and the team of Tim Harrington and Eric Chinburg are developing the Lincoln Street project. Jim Brady and Brian Eng are developing the Pearl Street project on the site of the former Maine Energy Recovery Company which will contain buildings on either side of the new city parking garage which is under construction and scheduled to open in July of 2021.
The total amount of development currently planned for this area will total about $175 million if all of the proposed elements of the various projects are completely realized. This is a fair amount of money to be invested into the area — or any area of this size — and is a sign of the confidence that developers have for the long term prospects for Biddeford-Saco. 
“There’s a lot of benefits that lead me to believe that Biddeford is long-term going to be a great economic engine here in the state,” stated Jim Brady, and his sentiment seems to be shared by many of the people we talked to in preparing this article.
All is not as rosy as it might be, considering the financial strains the pandemic has placed upon the economy here as elsewhere, but this has led more to a shifting of priorities for the spaces being developed more than anything else.
Office spaces, for example are being reduced or even eliminated by some developers as the work-at-home option for many companies looks as if it may have long-lasting effects on the workforce. Food and beverage spaces may have to be reconsidered also as social distancing requirements can affect the space usage for restaurants and bars.  
As far as specifics for some of these developments go, the plans are all featuring some sort of mixed-use utilization of the various spaces. The Lincoln, at 17 Lincoln St., is being developed by the site’s owner, Tim Harrington of Kennebunk-based LHL Holdings, and Eric Chinburg, of Chinburg Properties of Newmarket, N.H. as mentioned above.  Harrington bought the 240,000-square-foot mill for $2.5 million in 2015.
The project, originally expected to cost $40 million and to be completed in July 2020, has been delayed for several years as developers worked to put together financing that would include historic preservation tax credits and other elements amidst changes in federal tax rules.
The original plan called for a hotel and apartments. It was changed to 181 apartments, without a hotel, last year as financing was worked out. The latest plan once again includes a hotel.
Once it’s built, the development will include 148 market-rate apartments, a 33-room hotel with a rooftop pool and bar, a 5,000-square-foot restaurant, an 11,000-square-foot gym and 7,000 square feet of commercial space.
Another important factor to consider in viewing the viability of these various projects is the experience of the developers currently working on these projects. Chinburg is no stranger to mill developments — he owns 15 mills in New England, the most recent the Continental Mill in Lewiston. He also owns the nearby Saco Mill 4, which he bought in 2014 and converted to 150 units of market-rate apartments and 30,000 square feet of commercial space. It opened in 2017. He also owns the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook.
Brady started here by buying a former post office building in 2017, at 27 Washington St. He added a copper roof and removed mold, old boilers and asbestos-related insulation materials. Eng’s Portland-area projects include 6 City Center and Chaval restaurant in the city’s West End neighborhood and Westbrook’s Stockhouse Station. Brady’s Portland portfolio includes the Press Hotel, in a 1920s-era former newspaper building, and the 135-room Canopy by Hilton hotel, now under construction.
Brady and Eng are planning a whole new neighborhood around the $22 million city parking garage and a planned riverfront park the city estimates will be completed by summer 2021. They envision an urban, pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented mixed-use neighborhood to complement the ongoing downtown renaissance.
“Regardless of what Jim and I do, there’s around $100 million of development that’s occurring, and we have the opportunity to activate and integrate more innovative, transit-oriented urban development,” Eng says.
He also says that while high construction costs are scary, “one of the exciting things about ground-up construction is that we can really think about how we want this whole riverfront district to work, and how we want it to relate to the buildings that are already there.”
“We see this as a great, unique, long-term opportunity to help create a new urban fabric development in Biddeford that adds jobs, adds public excitement, areas for the public to enjoy like the park and urban streetscapes, and ultimately being able to build more housing, retail and office spaces,” said Brady. “That’s very good for the local economy and for the city of Biddeford.”
As things are moving ahead seemingly unabated and the future looks increasingly bright, pandemic or no, there are factors that come into play in any area of urban rejuvenation. One of the reasons that businesses decided to locate here in the first place is lower rents.  
If the rents increase too rapidly, as they can when areas become more desirable, 





it can have the effect of driving out the types of small businesses that make the area interesting and attractive in the first place. Rising tax rates can affect rents, 
of course, and this is something that the city will have to balance as things move forward.
Biddeford mayor Alan Casavant addressed this in a recent conversation when he said: “I think the biggest challenge for the city, and what other cities face when you have such great interest, is going to be the rising cost of rents.”
This and other issues will be affecting the pace of development here and it’s difficult to predict exactly what will happen but as things look now, with everything that is happening here, it seems as if this area will continue to grow and prosper no matter what temporary obstacles may appear.