Lewiston Sun Journal: Historic Renovations Applauded

Republished from Lewiston Sun Journal
Friday, May 15, 2009
Scott Taylor Staff Writer

LEWISTON - You can tell a building matters to a community by the way the community reacts to renovations, developer David Clem said.

That's the case with the Dominican Block, the four-story building he's renovating on the corner of Lincoln and Cedar streets.

"I've had more people stop by than any other project, talking about what the building means to them," Clem said. "They say they used to go to school here, or go to a shop in the building. It really means a lot to them."

It means a lot to the city's Historic Preservation Review Board, as well. Clem's Dominican Block was one of three buildings recognized for renovation efforts. The board also recognized an entire district around Main and Frye street. That area, including parts of Frye, Main and College streets near the Bates College campus, earned a National Register of Historic Places designation this year.

Clem said Thursday he was midway through his renovation project, the one-time home of the Dominican Fathers. Built in 1882, it housed retail on its lower floors, a school on the middle and an open space on the top floor.

"That's the part that you fall in love with, even when it's full of 3,000 pigeons," Clem said.

Striking a balance

He's been walking a regulatory tightrope since he began the work in 2007.

"It's an old building, so the fire inspectors and (Americans with Disability Act) rules want the building brought up to date," he said. "That's the exact opposite of what the historic board wants."

It's worth it, however.

"The people that are working for me are having to understand that a building like this represents quality and a level of craftsmanship that is not standard or economically feasible these days," he said.

He plans to continue fire safety and ADA renovations this summer. He has a plan for how to use the building, but he's keeping it to himself for the moment.

"Whatever is going to happen, it's going to be up to this community," Clem said. "I'm just in charge of the bones. It's going to be up to the community to give it a body and bring it to life."

The board also recognized Community Concepts for building the Bates Street Senior Housing project so that it matches the architectural and design theme of its Kennedy Park neighborhood. The Franco-American Heritage Center at St. Mary's Church, which hosted Thursday's event, was also recognized for preservation efforts.

The event was to mark May as National Preservation Month, sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. That's a nonprofit membership organization bringing people together to protect, enhance and enjoy the places that matter to them.

Lewiston Sun Journal: Restoration is hitting all the notes

Republished from the Lewiston Sun Journal
Our View
Friday, November 23, 2007

As projects go, restoring the Dominican Block is small potatoes for David Clem. For Lewiston-Auburn, however, the rebirth of this historic landmark is a six-course dinner.

Clem, whose son attends Bates College, was struck by the potential of the dormant Lincoln Street lady, whose peeling paint and air of abandonment belied her previous glory. In 1882, the Dominican Fathers constructed the grand edifice for its parish school in the burgeoning 19-year-old industrial city.

Later, the block became central to the vibrant Franco-American community of the neighborhood, smack between the triple-deckers of Little Canada and towering smokestacks of the mills. Its gradual descent into neglect reflected the changes of its surroundings, and the times.

Enter Clem, a developer with a noted reputation for "green" and "smart growth" projects around New England. When uttered by officials or politicians, these terms sound like idyllic slogans. Paired with substantial investment from a qualified benefactor, however, the potential becomes thrilling.

L-A is prime ground for developers like Clem. The cities have the raw materials for an architectural renaissance of the highest regard; our landmarks were built to last, not fall into irreparable gloom or emptiness.

The Bates Mill projects were massive undertakings, fueled by massive capital investments and equally massive prospective tenants. The Southern Gateway was a public-private partnership. Their momentum hasn't spread, however, into smaller, adjacent properties around downtown. Cost is the oft-cited reason.

Clem's work is showing what's possible. Yes, deep pockets help, but the other capital he's spending to renovate the Dominican Block is social. Clem bills the restoration as an exercise in civic engagement, his effort to strengthen the bonds between Bates and the community.

This latter point cannot be underestimated. Even tighter bonds between Bates and the community is of inestimable value, especially through something as strikingly visible as the Dominican Block renovation. Lewiston-Auburn really doesn't need another building competing for commercial tenants.

But it can use much more of this.

Maine has the institutional desire, but a paucity of incentives, for adaptive re-use of properties, given the immense cost compliance that modern building codes entail. Lawmakers are now endeavoring to remedy this situation, through policies like tax credits for developers.

Until then, it's up to trailblazers to show what vision, capital and strong community support can achieve.

Eric and Carrie Agren lit a spark with their restoration of Lyceum Hall. Clem is fanning these flames. (Though, as a trustee of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, he might prefer a more lyrical analogy: "I'm trying to play one small song in a whole concert in what it takes to revitalize a downtown," he says.)

So here's one: through this amazing effort, Clem can help L-A and Bates make beautiful music together.


Lewiston Sun Journal: A Labor of Love

Republished from Lewiston Sun Journal
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Carol Coultas, Business Writer

LEWISTON - David Clem has done enough historic renovations to know a beauty when he sees one.

So when he first viewed the Dominican Block - the 4-story, Queen Anne building that has anchored the corner of Chestnut and Lincoln streets since 1882 - he could see its potential, especially the top-floor ballroom.

Even though he was looking at it in 2 feet of pigeon poop.

"The craftsmanship in the corbelling, the brickwork, granite, cast iron ... it's just a well-built structure," said Clem, founder of the development firm Lyme Properties in Hanover, N.H. "When I walked into the top floor, well, that's what really grabbed me."

It wasn't just the building's "extraordinary bones" that grabbed Clem, but the chance to embark on a project that would preserve a significant piece of Lewiston's history and demonstrate civic responsibility between a private developer and community.

"I'm trying to play one small song in a whole concert in what it takes to revitalize a downtown," Clem said.

The building was first a parish school, then a community center for the thousands of Francos who stepped off the train at the nearby Grand Trunk Railroad into new lives in Lewiston's mills. The first floor was dedicated to retail, with classrooms on the second and third, and the top floor, an expansive ballroom was used for community gatherings. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

'A role to play'

Clem discovered the building with his son, a student at Bates College. Inspired by the college's attempts to foster a better relationship between town and gown, Clem thought preserving and renovating the Dominican Block would be his way of demonstrating civic engagement from the private sector.

"There was a role to play, helping revitalize the downtown and expand the relationship between Bates and the city," he said.

It's an issue near to his heart, having served as a city councilor in Cambridge while attending graduate school in urban studies and planning at MIT. Somewhere along the line he got bit by the bug - "a disease really" he said - to renovate old, historic buildings. More than 20 years ago, he and his partners renovated a complex of 21 mill buildings on 12 acres in Cambridge.

Since then, he's been involved in many projects, including the restoration of Fort McKinley on Great Diamond Island. He prides himself on the quality of the work, inspired to rise to the level of the original craftsmen.

"If you care about old buildings as I do, the excitement is to live up to the original standards," he said.

He seems to be doing just that, said Gil Arsenault, city planning director, who has called Clem's project "first-class."

"As far as I'm concerned, he's a hero," Arsenault said. The building had been vacant for years after its last long-term tenant, a local drum and bugle corps, left it. It deteriorated to the point where bricks were falling out of the facade and Arsenault said he was afraid the building would have to come down.

Then Clem appeared.

"I'm very impressed ... it's nice space," said Arsenault, who toured the building a couple of weeks ago.

Clem is hoping others will be glad to see the Dominican Block alive again. He intends to solicit memories and photos from people who have a connection to the building. But first, he's knee deep into the renovation. He expects the first floor will house retail space and perhaps a restaurant, offices on the second and third floors, and performance space on the top.

But the specifics are still up in the air. Clem acknowledges that he's going about this project backward - starting with the renovation and then considering the market. He intends to apply for federal historic tax credits, which return about 20 cents on the dollar in income tax credits to help offset the project's cost.

"Essentially, to renovate this building to a standard I'm comfortable with is uneconomic," he said. "The market conditions in Lewiston mean it doesn't pay for itself."

Clem declined to reveal how much he's already sunk into the renovation, but the building permit to construct just the elevator shaft and stairway carried an almost $1 million price tag. Luckily, Lyme Properties also builds state-of-the-art research laboratories, Clem's "day job" that allows him to indulge his love of historic adaptation and restoration.

In order to qualify for the tax credits, the renovation must meet standards designated by the historic preservation commission. Those requirements sometimes conflict with modern building codes for handicap accessibility and other life-safety requirements. That means negotiating between various regulatory agencies - a frustrating, but familiar challenge for Clem.

"I've done a significant number of these, so I'm not overwhelmed," he said.

Crews should finish the roof repairs by the end of the month, and if the weather holds, have the exterior buttoned up so they can begin interior renovations through the winter. Plans call for preserving and restoring the original windows that front Lincoln Street and installing high-quality replicas in the other three sides. Modern sprinkler, evacuation and HVAC systems will also be installed.

If all goes according to plan, Clem hopes to have the building available for tenant fit-up in 2009. But he's taking it one day at time.

"Right now, the Lewiston block is a labor of love, not of economics," he said.