Portland developer Nathan Szanton in an apartment unit on the top floor of his company's seven-story Furman Block building in Bayside. The 51-unit, age-restricted building opened officially on Jan. 14. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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If you ask the developer who built it, the best view from Bayside’s newest apartment building is from the top floor, where there is a panoramic view of the evolving neighborhood.

Seven stories below are former warehouses and public works properties that have been transformed into – were it not for the coronavirus pandemic – a vibrant business community. 

“I think,” the developer, Nathan Szanton, said as he looked out at the neighborhood that now includes Batson River Brewing & Distilling, Wilson County Barbecue, The Yard, Banded Brewing, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Leavitt & Sons Deli, “this really is the best view.” 

Szanton, 60, is the founder and president of The Szanton Co. He officially opened the company’s 11th project last week: the Furman Block, the seven-story apartment building on Kennebec Street with retail space on the first floor and 51 apartments above.

Those apartments bring to 561 the number the company has created since 1996 with a focus on affordability and mixed-income availability.

Szanton, 60, said he sees housing as an absolute necessity for individuals to thrive and succeed.

The Furman Block is the latest project from The Szanton Co. The 51-unit apartment building at Kennebec and Parris streets is part of an ongoing effort to revitalize Portland’s Bayside neighborhood. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

“I have a strong belief that housing is kind of the stable platform that all people need in their lives to be able to do whatever it is they want to do,” he said.

The Furman Block is even further specialized because it is age-restricted for residents 55 and older. During a grand opening ceremony, company Vice President Amy Cullen said most of the apartments are one-bedroom units, and six apartments are set aside for people recently coming from a homeless shelter.

Forty of the apartments will be income-restricted for people with no more than 60 percent of the area median income. Cullen said the monthly rents range from $825 to $1,087 for the affordable units and around $1,400 for the market-rate apartments.

As of last week, eight units had been filled. Cullen said the goal is to have 30 units taken by the end of January.

Mayor Kate Snyder praised the project, which replaced a former city public works building.

“I’m proud of the city’s actions to recognize this area has a better and higher use,” she said.

Szanton, who lives in Portland, got into this line of work after beginning his career as a loan officer for the Maine State Housing Authority. He said he learned there that nonprofit organizations were always looking for help finding housing for people with special needs, and groups like these often struggled to find land and obtain financing for projects.

He said he had a list of consultants he would refer nonprofits to, but those consultants invariably had full plates. So Szanton left MSHA and became a consultant on his own. After two years he started his development company.

Szanton said he’s held to his core belief on housing for every project. He said people with housing often take it for granted, and housing, along with food and health care, are basic platforms that underlie everything.

“Because of the way our economy is structured, there are a lot of people who can’t afford to pay what the market is charging for rents,” he said. “There’s a mismatch between a lot of people’s incomes and what it costs. As a society, we have an obligation to make housing affordable to people who can’t afford it.”

“I’m happy to be working in a field where I can help provide that for people,” Szanton added.

The Furman Block isn’t the only new housing development Bayside has seen in recent years.

Developer Tom Watson has a project in the works on nearby Hanover Street that would create 171 units in another space formerly used by public works. Watson also developed Bayside Village, the former student apartments that are now workforce housing.

The area around the Furman Block has also changed dramatically in recent years. Besides the restaurants and breweries, it also includes Bayside Bowl, Orangetheory Fitness, and the retail marijuana business SeaWeed Co., which was one of the first in the city to open.

Szanton said Bayside historically has had “much more than its fair share” of challenges, mostly stemming from the social service centers in the neighborhood that drew large numbers of homeless individuals.

“Bayside has had a lot of social problems,” he said. “What Bayside needed was the development of other uses to balance that out, to create a balanced neighborhood. That’s what we’re trying to add.”

Bayside has also been in the spotlight in recent months thanks to a dispute between some neighborhood residents and the former Preble Street Resource Center over Preble Street’s decision to transition to a 40-bed wellness center. Bayside is also home to the Oxford Street shelter, and Preble Street formerly operated a soup kitchen in the neighborhood.

Szanton said between the apartments on the top floors, and the first-floor retail space that could attract another restaurant to the area, the Furman Block will continue to help provide balance to the neighborhood.

“It’s no slight on the social services,” Szanton said. “They are doing great work with people who need help. But there are people who live in Bayside who just have to deal with too many social problems than any one neighborhood should have to try to handle.”

The lingering specter over the Furman Block, and any development past and present, is the coronavirus. Szanton said the pandemic obviously created challenges during construction, but also for the residents of this building and The Szanton Co.’s others.

The second floor of the Furman Block has a community space that can’t be used until the pandemic is under control, and some other Szanton developments have fitness rooms that have been closed because they don’t have the staffing to keep them constantly clean. And if not for the pandemic, Szanton said, residents could enjoy the restaurants and bars the neighborhood has to offer.

Szanton, a Washington, D.C., native who came to Maine for law school and settled here, said going forward, Portland will continue to need more diverse housing options.

“Portland is growing, it’s in demand,” he said. “There are people moving here from New York and Boston and Washington, D.C. And more and more it’s clear people can work from anywhere, so they want to live somewhere beautiful.”

He said it’s not just people moving into Maine from elsewhere that requires Portland to keep building. People from all around the state want to be in the city, and the city will need to accommodate them with housing options at all price points.

“We’re going to keep trying to meet that need,” Szanton said.

Casco Terrace on State Street in Portland. (Courtesy The Szanton Co.)

The Szanton Co. projects

The Szanton Co. has 11 projects throughout the region. Its first was Casco Terrace at 41 State St. in Portland, a former parking garage that was transformed into 27 housing units. Here are the others:

  • 53 Danforth St., Portland.
  • Furman Block, Parris and Kennebec streets, Portland.
  • Walker Terrace, 1 Walker St., Portland.
  • 48 Hampshire St., Auburn.
  • The Huse School Apartments, 39 Andrews Road, Bath.
  • The Lofts at Saco Falls, 75 Saco Falls Way, Biddeford.
  • The Mill at Saco Falls, 100 Saco Falls Way, Biddeford.
  • The Hartley Block, 155 Lisbon St., Lewiston.
  • The Lofts at Bates Mills, 36 Chestnut St., Lewiston.
  • The Sqaumscott Block, 130 Water St., Exeter, New Hampshire.
Walker Terrace the corner of Walker and Congress streets in Portland. (Courtesy The Szanton Co.)