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York's Don Rivers walks down the interior staircse of Pop's Shell Shack, located in the business district of York Beach.
Rivers has plans to renovate the structure to include a second-floor restaurant, boutiques and condominiums.
Photo by Amy Root-Donle

A new look for Pop's Shell Shack

By Jennifer L. Saunders
[email protected]

February 16, 2005: YORK BEACH MAINE- Long before it came to be known as the home of Pop?s Shell Shack, this now-vacant building in the heart of York Beach was the Atlantic House, a Victorian hotel reminiscent of the grace of days gone by.

Although the building?s owner, Don Rivers, is not proposing to renovate and reopen the four-story woodframe structure as a hotel, he is hoping the Planning Board will give him the nod to begin a project to recapture the spirit of Atlantic House?s past while contributing to the effort to revitalize York Beach.

Rivers was scheduled to appear before the Planning Board for a public hearing on his project last week, but the snowy forecasts of Feb. 10 forced a postponement of that meeting to Feb. 24.

Rivers said he hopes the Planning Board will support his plans to renovate the building into upscale shops on the first floor, a year-round restaurant on the second and six residential condominiums on the third and fourth floors.

"We?re going to maintain the flavor of the old hotel," Rivers said.

He noted that preliminary studies have indicated the building - which has seen its share of wear and tear weathering about a century of winters on York Beach - is structurally sound and can be renovated rather than razed.

Rivers said he hopes that the Atlantic House restoration, if approved, will provide more options for tourists and residents alike when visiting York Beach. His hope is for the restaurant to provide a fine dining option all year long.

"There are a lot of people in York Beach who have kept their businesses up, but there?s not a lot to do downtown," Rivers said of the ongoing effort to revitalize York Beach?s business district. "We want to make it a destination."

Town planner Steve Burns noted the board has had discussions about the Atlantic House several times in the past, and the proposed uses of the top floors are significantly different in the current proposal.

Burns said he will recommend the Planning Board take public comment on the project and then provide input to Rivers as the board sees fit.

There are many considerations for the board to tackle, Burns noted in his memorandum to the board in preparation for the Feb. 10 meeting.

The proposal to redevelop the property, which has been vacant for several years, includes about 5,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor, 3,400 square feet of restaurant space on the second floor, and 6,000 square feet of residential space on the top two floors, Burns explained in his report.

Burns cited many plusses for Rivers? plan, including the fact that the town has supported the preservation of historic properties in its Comprehensive Plan - and specifically in the York Beach Village Zone, where the Atlantic House is located.

He pointed out that Town Goal 9.1 reads, "Encourage the preservation of York?s historic and cultural resources, including historic and archaeological sites, historic buildings and architectural styles, and to make these resources a vibrant part of the community."

The project also supports neighborhood goals of the York Beach Village Center, Burns noted, including maintaining the character of the district as a family tourism destination, preserving the historic character of its buildings and rehabilitating structures in decline.

The town?s zoning provisions for converting historic buildings will be key to the project, Burns noted, especially with regard to the proposed residential density of the renovation. He is also recommending the Planning Board work with the town?s Historic District Commission in reviewing the proposal.

One factor that could be an issue is parking, Burns pointed out, and Rivers said he is proposing to use a lot located behind The Black Dog for the residential units of the Atlantic House, if the plan is approved.

Another sticking point Burns referenced in his memorandum to the Planning Board is the town?s Residential Growth Ordinance.

The Planning Board has no jurisdiction to exempt applicants from the growth ordinance, which, in turn, "makes no exceptions for faster development of residential units in a project like this. ... At stake is the loss of resources such as these buildings," Burns wrote.

He is recommending the Planning Board and HDC discuss whether to request an amendment to the ordinance to permit historic conversions such as the proposed Atlantic House renovation "given the number of policies in the Comprehensive Plan this project supports."

Rivers said he believes the plan is a good one and will benefit the York Beach area.

Rivers is also proposing some renovations to another well-known property located just around the corner from the Atlantic House.

The Kearsarge House, which is the home to Shelton?s and a restaurant on its first floor, would have 15 to 20 seasonal condominiums on its second and third floors, if approved.

Rivers said there will be some exterior renovations to the building as well, to bring it "more into keeping with the original architecture."

In both cases, York Beach Fire Chief David Bridges will provide input on fire safety considerations for the Planning Board?s discussion at its Feb. 24 meeting.

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