The Secret Garden

7 min read

Avesta’s 409 Cumberland is green all over

The idea for 409 Cumberland in Portland, Maine, one of the “greenest” and most innovative recent concepts in affordable housing, began in an Irish restaurant-bar.

That was where Dana Totman and Seth Parker, President and Director of Real Estate Development, respectively, of Maine’s Avesta Housing, were attending a reception hosted by Northern New England Housing Investment Fund, a prominent local tax credit syndicator. As Totman tells the story:

“Shortly before we conceived this project, we had completed Oak Street Lofts, a housing development for artists. We were standing in the bar line with the architect of Oak Street, talking about it, when he said something like, ‘It almost feels as if all our housing should be purposeful,’ like the artist project. I thought that was an interesting word – purposeful. Oak Street was really the first time we had strayed from traditional senior or workforce housing.

“Once we secured our beers, we continued the conversation in the bar. We had this site we’d recently purchased, right in the middle of downtown Portland, next door to the YMCA. It was supposed to have been a 100-unit condo that never got off the ground. That area has become a popular place for young people. It’s got an active outdoor scene and gives off a healthy vibe. It’s both touristy and urban gritty, with a cool feel to it. So we started tossing around ideas and came up with the idea of how we could use this site to promote healthy living. That’s as far as we got at the bar.”

But at the office the next day, Totman and Parker pursued the concept, including researching it online. “Seth found a building in Brooklyn with a greenhouse on top and we said to ourselves, ‘Maybe Maine is ready for this.’”

Green takes on an intriguing added meaning at 409 Cumberland. Avesta was already committed to energy efficiency in its building development plans, but the notion of combining green construction with actually green vegetable sustainability seemed the ultimate modern lifestyle aspiration.

“We liked the idea of a garden, of healthy living, of growing our own food. So we kept refining the idea and then bounced it off city leaders.”

The reaction was highly favorable, particularly the idea of gardening and community cooking in downtown Portland. The only concern was to make sure the building had a clear connection to the street scene and did not present as a self-contained enclave. Avesta had already planned a commercial grade, demonstration and teaching kitchen, which was made larger as a result of the civic input. “We could go anywhere from two to ten stories based on the neighborhood heights,” Totman explains. “We looked at how we thought the financing would become available, and decided that five stories would work financially.”

Quality Homes for People in Need
Since its founding in 1972, Avesta has become one of the largest nonprofit developers of affordable housing in New England and has been awarded repeatedly for promoting and providing quality homes for people in need. Totman was Deputy Director of the Maine State Housing Authority and before that, Executive Director of the Coastal Economic Development Corporation. Avesta has assets of $250 million, an annual budget of $29 million, and 118 employees. One of Totman’s critical goals going forward is expanding the company’s capacity to serve the more than 2,500 people on its residential waiting list, as well as other low-income seniors, families and the homeless. Last year, the company played a leading role in the challenging effort to get a $15 million housing bond through a divisive state legislature. Ultimately, nearly 70% of Maine voters approved the bond issue.

409 Cumberland Avenue opened in January 2015 as a 57-unit community of studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments. It is within walking distance of a vibrant array of shops, restaurants and services in the Bayside, Arts District and Old Port neighborhoods. The residency breakdown is 60% at 50% of area median income or less, 20% at 60% AMI or less, and 20% at market rate.

“How each unit is classified is essentially blind to anyone but us,” says Parker. “They are mixed randomly throughout the building and set up so that economic distinctions are not in your face. All of the units are built and finished the same and we can shift designation of each one as people move in and out.” The diverse population currently ranges from an 80-year-old woman to a disabled man in his 20s, to immigrants from Central Africa.

The Garden on the Roof
What makes 409 Cumberland unique in this market, though, literally starts at the top. On the roof is a 750-square-foot, all-season greenhouse and 1,600 square feet of raised garden beds where residents grow and harvest their own vegetables year-round. “The views from the top of the building are quite stunning,” Totman comments.

The Healthy Living Center on the ground floor includes the teaching kitchen. Avesta has teamed up with Cultivating Community, a local nonprofit dedicated to enhancing urban sustainability through food, to provide programming for residents and the community regarding such subjects as growing, harvesting, preparation and cooking.

“They were a natural partnership for us,” says Totman.

After a full year’s experience, the results have been beyond expectation. “It’s amazing how much they got,” notes Parker. “One man grew so many tomatoes that he gave them away throughout the building. It’s been wonderful to see that kind of cooperation.”

This is particularly gratifying to Totman, who says, “We have 80 developments in Maine and New Hampshire, and we’re always trying to do a better job of creating community. It’s our strong assumption that when people know and cooperate with their neighbors, it saves money and energy – in terms of giving each other rides, helping with shopping and other errands, watching each other’s children and things like that.”

A Checklist of Energy Efficiency
The physical plant is a virtual checklist of state-of-the-art energy efficiency. In addition to its healthy and sustainable living themed features, the building has a super-insulated envelope, high-efficiency HVAC system, low-impact storm water management, safe paints and materials, energy-efficient windows, low-flow plumbing fixtures, CFL and LEED lighting and Energy Star appliances, community spaces and bicycle storage.

The bulk of the $11.1 million total cost was funded with 9% Low Income Housing Tax Credits through Boston Capital and a mortgage and a subsidy from Maine Housing Authority (See Souces & Uses chart). The project generated 373 construction jobs, paid $1.72 million in worker wages, $14,371 development-related fees to Portland, $248,320 in revenue to the state and increased property taxes by $30,742.

As exciting and successful as 409 Cumberland has been, Totman concedes that it “is not necessarily easily replicable. Clearly, adding the greenhouse and rooftop gardens and the kitchen added considerable costs, as well as needing the elevator to go higher to a reinforced roof. We had to negotiate with the housing finance agency to let us find additional money from Neighborworks America.”

Yet while Avesta would like to see 409 become a national model, it has already inspired a host of new ideas. “As a result of this project, we’ve gone out to our other developments to see where we have room for gardens,” says Totman. Additionally, the company has begun sending visiting nutritionists to its properties and instituted healthy cooking demonstrations.

All in all, the 409 Cumberland experience has spawned a good deal of outside-the-box thinking. For example, Avesta is currently focused on enhancing the health of its senior development residents through telemedicine and other computer and online applications. This appears to be part of a trend, as remote monitoring of building systems is already a highly developed market. It follows naturally that a similar benefit would find its way to the building’s human residents.

Totman admits that it can be difficult to quantify the added value of arts, gardening or healthy living in the affordable housing sector. But Avesta has proven that with the right plan, the right location, community backing and cooperation, and an appropriate funding stack, these kinds of model projects are possible.

And, he adds, “409 Cumberland is an example of urban redevelopment at its best. How do you measure neighborliness? How do you measure resident retention rates? How do you measure happiness?”