Living in Your High School

6 min read

Augusta, Maine historic school redeveloped as senior housing 

Some years in high school feel so long, you feel like you live there. Now Jim Whitten does. More than 50 years after he graduated, Whitten returned to old Cony High School building in Augusta, Maine, this time as his new home. Cony High has become an affordable senior housing community.

“It was quite a treat to move back to my old high school,” says Whitten. His new home is full of familiar details. “It’s like going back in time… The hardwood floors have the same creek that they had back then.”

On July 1, 2015, Whitten became the first new resident of the new Cony Flatiron Senior Residence. Just a few weeks later the community was fully occupied, ending a struggle to redevelop the landmark school that had taken more than 10 years.

A new use is hard to find for a crumbling landmark
The last classes at the school ended in 2005, when workers finished a new high school on the other side of Maine’s capital, a city of just around 20,000 residents, the third smallest capital in the country and seventh largest city in the state.

City officials approached an affordable housing developer to redevelop the old school. Housing Initiatives of New England (HINE) had already converted Augusta’s historic City Hall into 31 affordable, fully-licensed assisted living apartments.

“They did a wonderful job,” says Augusta city manager Bill Bridgeo.

However, at the time the demand for seniors housing didn’t seem strong enough to support a new seniors community.

Officials kept trying. Built in 1932, the Cony Flatiron Building is a beloved landmark near the heart of downtown Augusta. Whitten’s apartment has a view of the state capital building. The narrow, three-story building is triangular, to fit between two streets, like the famous Flatiron Building in New York City. It gets the other part of its name from Daniel Cony, who first gave land to the city for a school for women two centuries ago.

Part of the site was quickly adapted to a new use. The old Cony High School included a wing of classrooms that were added in 1965. When the town planned to close the school, it decided to tear down the 1965 wing to build a new 49,000-square-foot Hannaford Grocery Store that opened in July 2009.  It took some work to convince neighbors that a grocery store would serve Augusta better than another park, of which downtown already has several.

“It’s nice in town to have a full-service grocery store,” says Bridgeo.

As the years passsed, the old Cony Flatiron Building stood next to the bustling, new grocery store, its windows dark. Water began to leak in through the old roof, even though the city spent $75,000 a year to maintain the historic building. The local police department sometimes used the empty building for training exercises, staging paint gun battles in in the empty halls.

Town officials prepared three requests for proposals to redevelop the landmark high school into new office space. Several developers expressed an interest but none could complete the deal.

Finally in 2013, HINE took a second look. Augusta’s population continues to grow older. A new market study showed a need for nearly 200 additional seniors housing apartments between 2013 and 2018 – with demand increasing as the years pass.

HINE created a plan to build 48 independent living units for seniors over the age of 55, including 41 one-bedroom apartments and seven with two-bedrooms.

It would cost a total of $11 million to redevelop the old school. Federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs) were the key to financing the deal.

“Winning the federal LIHTCs was the biggest challenge,” says Cynthia Taylor, HINE’s executive director.

Maine’s competition for 9 percent LIHTCs is intense. Developers typically apply for more than three times as many tax credits as the state has to reserve. Proposed developments often have to apply three times before winning a reservation from the Maine State Housing and Development Authority (MSHDA), says Taylor.

To help its application score better, the developer didn’t just gather statements of support from local officials. The property also arranged much of its funding.

Local Financial Support
Town officials helped the development apply for a $300,000 federal Community Development Block Grant, administered by MSHDA.

The city additionally provided support by providing tax increment financing that acts as a property tax exemption. Normally, a nonprofit, like HINE, would not have to pay property taxes, but the Cony Flatiron property is owned by a for-profit tax credit partnership. The city agreed to immediately refund the property taxes every year, equal to about $40,000 annually.

The Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco also provided $580,000 through its Affordable Housing Program.

The developer applied for tax credits in 2014, and won a reservation on its first try. The reservation of LIHTC sold for $5.2 million to NDC Corporate Equity Fund, headquartered in New York City.

Historic Tax Credits finished off the plan to finance the redevelopment. NDC also bought these, paying $2.6 million for the Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits and $1.7 for the State Tax Credits. HINE has a lot of experience in meeting the standards of these programs and the Cony Flatiron had little trouble qualifying.

The city still owns the school. “The building has a great deal of sentimental value for our town,” says Bridgeo.

HINE has a 50-year lease on the property for $1 a year. The lease gives city officials an extra feeling of security, that they can demand that the developers keep, preserve and maintain features, like the landmark Cony Clock, in good working order and protect the historic details that grace the school’s third floor auditorium, which now serves as community space.

The work progressed smoothly, with only a few surprises, like lead paint and heavy, clay soil in the ground that needed to be removed. “We had enough contingency in the budget to cover the costs,” says Taylor.

A Popular Home
The new apartments filled up in just six weeks after the community opened in July 2015. That’s tremendously fast for a senior housing property. Seniors often take their time before moving to a new home, and new seniors housing communities often lease just a few apartments in an average month. The community now has a waiting list long enough to last two years.

“The quality of the work they did is fantastic. I couldn’t be happier,” says Jim Whitten, who will attend his 50th Cony High School reunion this summer. The weekend celebration includes a tour of the redevelopment for its alumni.