PORTLAND — Plans to turn a run-down apartment building on Congress Street into studios for artists have been scuttled by a lengthy approval process, restrictions in historic-preservation laws and a case of arson, a city councilor said Tuesday.

Councilor David Marshall said the backer of the project, Roxanne Quimby, has told him she has dropped her plan for 660 Congress St. and is instead focusing on a proposal to develop a culinary school and art gallery at the former Roma restaurant a few blocks away.

Quimby co-founded the Burt’s Bee’s line of personal care products and then sold the company. She has used her money to start a foundation, invest in preservation of the North Woods and, now, boost the arts in Portland.

The project at 660 Congress St. called for an artist-in residence program providing studio and gallery space for four to six artists. The artists would have been given housing at a separate site.

Quimby did not respond to requests for comment, but Marshall, whose council district includes 660 Congress St., said she told him that the project was taking too long to get off the ground. The original timeline called for the program to be operating by now, he said.

The renovation of the Queen Anne Victorian – expected to cost more than $1 million – had barely begun when an arson fire struck the building in January.

The project also was delayed by historic-preservation rules that imposed restrictions on the work, and a lengthy appeal of a city fee for displacing apartments, Marshall said.

The city initially planned to assess a fee of $406,000 because the project would have eliminated seven apartments, even though the building is vacant. A city ordinance requires developers of projects that displace housing to build housing elsewhere in the city or pay $58,000 per unit into a city housing fund.

Quimby appealed the fee and the City Council voted 6-3 in October to designate the proposal a “project of special merit,” waiving the fee.

Marshall said he’s looking for other developers who might be interested in the site so it doesn’t remain vacant much longer.

“It needs a new vision,” he said of the building. “(It) is a valuable asset and its development is critical in the redevelopment of that part of Congress Street.”

Marshall said he has contacted one potential developer and hopes to set up a meeting “to begin a dialogue” soon.

The former Roma restaurant building, which was a mansion before the restaurant moved in 75 years ago, is also important to the area, he said.

Quimby has put up a website looking for artists and cooks who are interested in being part of the “Quimby Colony” at 769 Congress St.

The “colony” is looking for artists in the “fashion, costume or textile arts” and “accomplished or emerging culinary artists,” who would get studio space, room and board.

Marshall said he supports that effort. “All of these historic buildings need new uses,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]