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January 10, 2018 | last updated January 10, 2018 2:36 pm

Avesta, shop owner partner to help build a community in South Portland

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Dana Totman, president of Avesta Housing, Quang Nguyen, owner of Le Variety on Westbrook Street in South Portland, and Tyler Norod, project coordinator, stand inside Nguyen's store. The store will be torn down to make way for a five-story mixed-use building that will include retail and 64 apartments.

On paper, the 64-apartment mixed-use development planned for South Portland's Westbrook Street looks simply like a response to the need for affordable apartments in the city.

But the development, a partnership between Avesta Housing and Portland businessman Quang Nguyen, is also a key player in the city's effort to make a loose group of large apartment complexes into a community.

A neighborhood hub is important, said Dana Totman, president of Avesta, a nonprofit organization that owns 80 properties in Maine and New Hampshire. "It creates a sense of community, a sense of identity. It creates trust, and a place where neighbors help one another."

Nguyen, who owns the Le Variety convenience store at 586 Westbrook St., the site where the five-story building is planned, said he bought the store two years ago with just this type of project in mind.

"My vision was a place for people to come and shop, to congregate," he said as he sat at a table in the store Tuesday.

Wheels in motion

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Le Variety, 586 Westbrook St., will be located on the first level of the five-story multi-use building.

Nguyen said the first time he saw the store he wanted to buy it, and, coincidentally, ran into a real estate broker who helped make the deal happen.

He later attended a neighborhood master plan public hearing, at which city officials discussed how they wanted to make the neighborhood more connected and people-friendly.

After getting some leads from city officials, Nguyen approached Avesta about a partnership.

Avesta owns 139 units in the Brick Hill development at the site of the former Maine Youth Development Center.

Nguyen bought the quarter- acre vacant parcel next to the store's 0.66 acre lot in July in anticipation of the city rezoning the area in an effort to make it more of a neighborhood.

The city approved the West End Master Plan Aug. 21, which allowed the Avesta/Nguyen project to go forward. The plan calls for Avesta to buy the site from Nguyen, and he will own 4,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor.

The South Portland Planning Board approved the site plan in December, and Totman said Avesta will apply for this spring's round of Maine Housing Authority tax credits.

Addressing a need

Courtesy / Avesta Housing
Courtesy / Avesta Housing
An architect's rendering of the multi-use retail and residential building at 586 Westbrook St.

The five-story building will house 22 studio apartments, 16 one-bedroom, 16 two-bedroom and 10 three-bedroom. Some 80% of it will be for low-income renters, said Tyler Norod, the project development officer.

The larger apartments will help address the shortage of multi-bedroom units in the city.

Totman said the apartments target those with income of $25,000 to $45,000. "That captures a lot of folks working at the Maine Mall, in area doctors' offices," he said. "The folks who just don't have the earned income to buy a home, or don't want to."

The first floor will house a community room, the new Le Variety, twice the size of the current one at 4,000 square feet, and Opportunity Alliance, which is South Portland's Community Action Agency. The organization's resource center currently operates out of a mobile home next to Le Variety.

Nguyen will expand the restaurant part of the store, which now serves pizza, breakfast sandwiches, egg rolls and banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches). He said about 2,500 square feet of the space will be store, and about 1,500 square feet will be the cafe.

Totman said if the tax credits are in place this spring, the project would be finished by spring 2020.

Democracy in action

Nguyen said in the two years he's owned Le Variety, he has seen the seeds of a community hub.

He said it's a gathering place. "Someone will be on the phone and say, 'Hey, I'm in the store,' and everyone knows where he's talking about."

The Westbrook Street neighborhood, often referred to as Red Bank, a reference to the most prominent of its half-dozen developments, has about 3,000 residents, 90% of whom rent. It's hemmed in by the Portland International Jetport, Interstate 295 and the shopping area that's sprung up around the Maine Mall.

The city's focus on it has been intense over the past year — Patti Smith, who was mayor when the master plan was approved in August, called it the city's "next horizon in many ways."

The zoning changes and master plan aim to give the neighborhood connectivity, regional access, sustainability and increased recreation and open space. The city plans to widen sidewalks and add street lights and other pedestrian-friendly features, coordinated with the Avesta/Nguyen project.

Totman, Norod and Nguyen all said the collaboration between all the groups involved, and the effort of the city government, were vital to the project.

"There's been a real push by the city to put some effort and time into this," Norod said. "The city has gone above and beyond to set the table and make this project a possibility."

Totman said the partnership of housing, social services, business and municipal "is a special collaboration, and that can't be overstated."

Nguyen, 28, a Vietnamese immigrant, said it goes even deeper for him.

"Coming from a third world country, and seeing a democracy, how it works and how it all comes together, from the very beginning and up through the city, and now I'm collaborating on a $13 million project? That's pretty amazing," he said.

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