Developer pulls plug on Peirce School apartments, new buyer in the mix

City to review plan for former Group Home building
By Ethan Andrews | Mar 26, 2019
File photo by: Ethan Andrews Peirce School

Belfast — A plan to convert the former Peirce Elementary School to apartments is off, but the developers behind it say they aren't done just yet. In the meantime, a Belfast man has come forward claiming he is buying the building to start a shared living space.

Reservoir Ventures has withdrawn its application with the city to convert the two-story brick schoolhouse into eight market-rate apartments. Matt Francis, a principal of the company, confirmed the withdrawal but said he and his partners are working with another potential buyer for the old schoolhouse.

"I can't speak of the details," he said, adding that Reservoir Ventures hopes to "be able to support" the next buyer if the deal goes through.

Reservoir's original proposal for the 103-year-old building drew a mix of interest and opposition after it was announced in December.

Members of both the City Council and Planning Board commended the developers for adding to the available housing stock in the area, but some neighbors of the property at 24 Church St. were less than pleased.

The school is one of a handful of unique properties in the city that are subject to contract rezoning, which allows for a wider range of potential uses while giving the city final authority to accept or reject any plan. Non-owner-occupied apartments were not on the long list of allowed uses for the Peirce School property when Reservoir pitched its plan in December.

The City Council amended the zoning to fit the proposal. But the change angered some nearby property owners, who worried that renters with no ownership stake would neglect the property and bring additional traffic and noise to the neighborhood.

Francis declined to say whether apartments are still in the building's future. Any plan would have to go through the city's contract rezoning process, which requires approval by the City Council in addition to the typical review by the Planning Board.

In search of "awesome folks"

The story of the old schoolhouse took another sharp turn March 23 when an ad seeking roommates for the building appeared on Facebook Marketplace. The post, by Christopher Williams, included photos of the interior and a long description of his plans for the building that began, "I'm buying this badass old elementary school, the Pierce School, and looking for awesome folks to love (sic) with."

Williams, who hasn't been publicly involved with the school until his Facebook announcement, said he has the "gigantic 12,000 square foot, 3 story mansion" under contract and is looking for roommates to move in May 1.

In an energetic pitch that included the word "awesome" another nine times, Williams laid out his vision of a live/work space populated by "artists, makers, painters, potters, woodworkers, musicians, business folk, dancers, graphic designers, yoga, bodyworkers of any sort," with private bedrooms, a shared kitchen and assorted studio space. Tenants would pay $1,300 per month, which would include all utilities and internet.

"It’s a single-family house but it's HUGE," Williams wrote, "and there are six huge bedrooms with a basement with 6 addition(al) rooms that can be your office, jam space, workshop, you name it."

Reached through Facebook on March 27, Williams said grew up in Belfast and is excited to move back home. “I have a lot friends that went to the Peirce School and have lots of friends and old teachers that live the neighborhood, it will be really great if I can be their neighbors.”

Williams went to college in Boston, where he said friends living together in a large single family house is the norm, and he’s continued to live like this ever since.

“When I decided to move home, I went on Craigslist and found out that there are many folks renting out rooms in larger homes in Belfast," he said, "but when I found out the Peirce school was for sale, I just thought it would make a beautiful home and seems like a much better deal than other large single homes in the area.”

Williams said the post on Facebook was part of his due diligence process, and he didn’t expect to get such a large response. The sale is far from final, he said, adding that he's still determining the cost of additional work he would need to have done on the building to make it livable.

He declined to say if he is working with Reservoir Ventures. Matt Francis did not immediately return a call on Tuesday seeking comment.

Return of a Belfast group home

Another contract rezoning proposal is scheduled to come before the Planning Board later this month. Volunteers of America Northern New England has submitted an application to redevelop the former Group Home Foundation residence at 80 High St.

GHF abruptly closed its flagship group home early in 2016 and was dissolved soon after. Volunteers of America was among the organizations that picked up the pieces, taking over some of GHF's residential services. City Planner Wayne Marshall said the proposal for 80 High St. recalls the building's original use, with 12 residences for seniors and young adults with intellectual disabilities.

The Planning Board is scheduled to review that application Wednesday, March 27.

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