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August 17, 2021 at 7:00 am

The Right Equation for Responsible Development: Spotlight on Solterra

Each year, the Maine Real Estate & Development Association (MEREDA) recognizes some of the state’s most “noteworthy and significant” real estate projects, completed in the previous year. The exemplary projects from across the state, completed in 2020, not only embody MEREDA’s belief in responsible real estate development, but also exemplify best practices in the industry, contributing to Maine’s economic growth by significant investment of resources and job creation statewide.

This year, MEREDA honored projects from Portland to Pittsfield to Bangor, with each receiving special recognition at MEREDA’s 2021 Virtual Spring Conference on May 20th.

In a multi-part series exclusive to the Maine Real Estate Insider, we’ll provide an up-close look at the most notable commercial development projects of the past year that are helping to fuel Maine’s economy in terms of investment and job creation. MEREDA is proud to recognize responsible development based upon criteria including environmental sustainability, economic impact, energy efficiency, difficulty of the development, uniqueness, social impact and job creation.

MEREDA’s 2020 Top 6 recipients include:

Rock Row Phase 1 Retail Center, Waterstone Properties Group (Westbrook)
82 Hanover Street, Port Property Management (Portland)
Hospice of Southern Maine, Zachau Construction / SMRT (Scarborough)
Solterra, Portland Housing Authority (Portland)
One Merchants Plaza, Sky Villa Properties (Bangor)
Puritan Medical COVID –Building Expansion (P2), Puritan Medical Products (Pittsfield)

Please join us this week in celebrating Solterra.

MEREDA:  Describe the building and project.

Portland Housing Authority: Located at 58 Boyd Street in East Bayside and aptly named for the nearby urban gardens and Italian community which was once there, Solterra (“sun and earth” in Italian) is a mixed-income, six-story building featuring 23 efficiency, ten (10) one-bedroom, thirteen (13) two-bedroom and nine (9) three-bedroom apartments. Solterra features a rooftop solar array, a community space (The Harvest Room) adjacent to the Boyd Street Urban Gardens, free WiFi service for residents, 23 automobile parking spaces, 28 secure bicycle spaces within the building, a laundry room, recycling and trash services, and, eventually, composting services. Solterra was modeled at 34% more energy efficient than a building meeting code requirement.

Solterra was one of two projects in Maine to receive a competitive grant from Efficiency Maine to install 145 rooftop solar panels. The 50-Kilowatt system allows enough savings to cover all common area electricity and free WiFi for all residents. 80% of the units are affordable to households earning below 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI). 20% of the units have no income restrictions. Rents range from $788 for an efficiency to $1,810 for a three-bedroom. 28 units have project-based rental assistance, meaning the resident only pays 30% of their income for the unit and the federal Housing Choice Voucher program covers the difference.

Solterra was able to safely provide needed employment for all those involved during its final phase of construction during the COVID-19 pandemic, when unemployment in Maine and nationally was at record highs. The $10 Million contract awarded to construction manager Wright-Ryan Construction kept dozens of Maine subcontractors employed during a challenging time. The larger economic impact will be helping the families that will only pay no more than 30% of their income toward housing costs, considered a benchmark of affordable housing. All utilities are included in the Solterra rent. The affordability allows residents a better chance at avoiding food insecurity, and health problems, both major issues in Maine today.

While the full social impact of Solterra remains to be seen, the project has already had a positive impact on the character of the East Bayside neighborhood. It has provided hope for many families who are seeking affordable rental housing in the City of Portland. And, Solterra has hopefully inspired trust in the city’s commitment to build forward-thinking, environmentally sustainable, energy efficient, accessible and beautiful affordable housing.

MEREDA:  What was the impetus for this project?  

Portland Housing Authority:  Solterra was designed to contribute critically-needed affordable units to the City of Portland’s housing stock, while also accommodating the local community’s social, physical and environmental needs, with accessibility, quality of life, durability and environmental sustainability as keystones to the design process. For example, the rooftop solar installation not only reduces the building’s environmental footprint, but also provides a crucial cost-savings, which partly subsidizes building-wide WiFi Internet so residents can remotely access work, educational resources, and a variety of support services. This includes telehealth services, which are provided through a partnership between Greater Portland Health and the Portland Housing Authority, but also early childhood education resources, literacy training, after-school activities, employment services and workforce training.

MEREDA:  That sounds like quite a process.  How long were you in the planning stages before construction started?

Portland Housing Authority:  Planning for Solterra was quite involved, in part so the project could capitalize on grant funding from Efficiency Maine’s Energy Community Demonstration Projects in Affordable Housing program and incorporate design elements to achieve high energy efficiency. Additionally, the site required extensive remediation of contaminated soil and ground stabilization with piles. The project was in the pre-construction phase of planning, design and securing financing for over two years.

MEREDA:  Tell us about the most challenging aspect of getting this project completed.

Portland Housing Authority:  We knew from the outset that the site was a Brownfield given the history of the Great Fire of 1869 in Portland. Removing contaminated soils on a site for future family housing was of critical importance. Through additional funding sources and careful coordination, the project closed on its construction loan after the site remediation was complete.

What made this especially challenging was the fact that the project had done geotechnical test pits and test borings, but the marine clay soils and depth to bedrock surprised our design and construction team. We needed to drill the piles that support the foundation up to 115 feet below grade versus the 75 feet that we had been expecting. This used up a large portion of our construction contingency fund.

MEREDA:  Something unexpected you learned along the way was….

Portland Housing Authority:  As mentioned, we learned an important lesson about the variability of Portland’s geology when it comes to foundation-setting. The actual depth to bedrock versus our expectations surprised our design and construction team, but ultimately this did not disrupt the project.

MEREDA:  Now that it’s complete, what feature of the project do you think makes it the most notable? 

Portland Housing Authority:  Maine has hundreds of urban Brownfield sites, contaminated from a past with less environmental regulations. Solterra is an example of Portland Housing Authority’s commitment to cleaning up and re-using sites within its portfolio that are under-utilized in order to create more rental housing during an affordable housing crisis. With assistance from City of Portland EPA Brownfields funding, there is one more clean, healthy site in Portland’s urban core.

Solterra not only provides safe, affordable housing, but also provides an indoor environment that is healthy for its residents. The building is designed with healthy building materials that have low-VOC or no-VOC (harmful chemicals). There is abundant continuous fresh air to each unit that is pre-heated with a Heat Recovery Ventilation system to save energy. These features, coupled with a robust services program, including a telehealth program through Greater Portland Health, makes the health of our residents a top priority.

Categories: Maine Real Estate Insider, MEREDA News