PORTLAND – A group of property owners is fighting a proposed affordable housing development in the city’s arts district, arguing that it would lower property values and inhibit the area’s economic resurgence.

Supporters say the project would provide housing for artists and people who work in low-wage service jobs downtown.

Avesta Housing plans to build a 37-unit, four-story apartment building on Oak Street, behind Five Fifty-Five, an upscale restaurant at 555 Congress St. The 9,600-square-foot lot is now used for monthly parking.

Greg Payne, Avesta’s development officer, said the apartments would be 420 square feet and rent for $500 to $750 a month.

He said the agency would conduct an aggressive marketing campaign to attract artists, and the apartments would have amenities that artists might appreciate — high ceilings, oversized stainless-steel sinks, extra storage space and a common area on the first floor that could be a showcase for art.

The exterior design is still being developed. Payne said Avesta Housing wants the building to be of high quality, creative and different. He acknowledged that fair housing laws would prevent the agency from renting exclusively to artists. ”If someone says, ‘I want to be here but I have no artistic talent whatsoever,’ we absolutely will let them have a shot,” Payne said.

Some of the neighboring property owners, including residents of expensive condominiums, the owners of Five Fifty-Five and the owners of other commercial buildings on Congress Street, see the project as a lost opportunity. They say the arts district already has enough housing for low-income residents, and that it needs more people who have money to spend at restaurants and art galleries.

”When you add people who can’t do anything to the economic development of the community, you take up space,” said Penelope Carson, who owns a nearby commercial building on Congress Street in a partnership with her brother, Harold Pachios.

Tom Moulton, developer of Winslow Lofts, a 17-unit condominium building at 547 Congress St., said affordable housing should be built elsewhere. He said the large amount of subsidized housing in the area and the proximity of services for the homeless are making it difficult to revitalize Congress Street and turn it into a much-needed economic engine for the city.

Rather than look out for the greater good of the city, officials ”only look out for the underdogs,” he said. ”Everybody is so concerned about political correctness, that sometimes gets in the way.”

Susan Fitzpatrick, who bought a one-bedroom condo in Winslow Lofts for $260,000 in 2006, said she is worried that Avesta Housing’s project would increase crime.

”I worked my butt off to live downtown,” she said. ”I don’t want my property’s value driven down, and I don’t want the crime rate going up.”

Payne said that rents in Avesta’s development would be high enough so that only employed people could afford to live there.

Avesta will present its plan to the city in about a month. It needs approval from the Planning Board and the Historic Preservation Board.

City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, whose district includes the neighborhood, said there is ”unwavering” support on the City Council for projects like the one planned for Oak Street.

He said the city’s comprehensive plan and housing plan call for increased housing of all types. From the city’s perspective, he said, the only controversial issue is how many parking spaces the building should have.

The proposal is the ”perfect realization of the comprehensive plan,” he said. ”We have no policy grounds for displacing or denying housing access to working people.”

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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