PORTLAND – Is it possible for a neighborhood to have too much space for parking?

Some people in the city’s East End think so.

They say their hopes of turning the area near India Street into a funky extension of the Old Port are fading as the neighborhood turns into a satellite parking district for the downtown.

The area is dominated on the east by a seven-story, 719-space parking garage at the corner of Middle and Hancock streets.

Completed two years ago, the Ocean Gateway garage was supposed to serve the parking needs for the Nova Scotia ferry — which stopped operating that year — and other anticipated development in the area, including a major mixed-use project that was never built.

The city helped finance construction of the garage by agreeing to lease spaces for $100 per month each if nobody else leased them. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the city paid the developer nearly $64,000. Today, the garage has many empty spaces.

Last week, the Planning Board approved another parking garage a block away — a two-story, 213-space facility on the former Jordan’s Meats site, at India and Fore streets.

The first floor will provide parking for a new 122-room Hampton Inn and a restaurant. The top floor will be for public parking and eventually support future development at the site.

In addition to the garages, there are numerous surface lots in the area, said Samantha Lindgren, co-owner of Rebalais, a bookstore at 88 Middle St. that specializes in cookbooks.

For businesses in the suburbs, abundant free parking is crucial, she said. But in an urban area like Portland’s peninsula, it’s more important to have an attractive, walkable neighborhood that has interesting storefronts and restaurants.

She said merchants had hoped that the Jordan’s Meats site would be developed as a project that would draw people to the neighborhood from the Old Port. Instead, she said, the parking garage will act as a visual barrier.

“There are too many parking lots,” she said. “Nobody wants to walk around in a neighborhood full of parking lots.”

The garages will create an “industrial, utilitarian” atmosphere rather than an inviting urban landscape, said Nancy Pugh, co-owner of two restaurants in the area, Hugo’s and Duck Fat.

On a recent weekend, she said, the Old Port bustled with activity while the East End was desolate. She said the new hotel won’t help because it will face Fore and Franklin streets, while India and Middle streets will face a wall of parked cars.

“It’s discouraging,” Pugh said. “We get the back side of the hotel and this garage.”

City officials say the Hampton Inn project was approved because it met the city’s zoning standards.

Mark Woglan, president of Opechee Construction Corp., the developer of the Jordan’s Meats site, said critics misunderstand the scope of the project.

The garage will have an attractive brick and granite facade, and there will be a sidewalk around the perimeter, he said. When the economy recovers, a six-unit condominium will be built at the site, and four townhouses will be built on top of the upper deck.

Woglan said the garage will add to the urban landscape.

Christian MilNeal, a transportation activist who lives on Smith Street, said the addition of more than 200 parking spaces will flood the market, leaving more spaces empty in the Ocean Gateway garage and causing the city’s subsidy to increase. The city has committed to leasing the spaces through 2013.

“One of the baffling things is how they are developing more leased parking when just across the street there are all these empty parking spaces that the city can’t give away,” he said.

The Ocean Gateway garage was built by Riverwalk LLC, which planned a 116-unit condominium complex, a 40-unit apartment building and a five-story office building.

City officials wanted the garage to be big enough to provide parking for Riverwalk and future development. The idea was to consolidate the area’s parking space in the garage.

Although the recession has stalled several development projects in the area, the idea of consolidating parking still makes sense in the long term, said Jack Lufkin, who was Portland’s economic development director in 2006, when the city negotiated the parking lease agreement with Riverwalk.

He said the lack of parking is among the biggest obstacles to development in Portland. Because the Ocean Gateway garage has removed that obstacle in the East End, projects like Riverwalk eventually will get built, he said.

“When the economy turns around, it’s going to mean those areas are going to get developed,” he said.

When it comes to attracting development, there’s no such thing as too much parking, said Nicholas Iselin, director of development and construction for Intercontinental Real Estate Corp., which owns the garage today.

Iselin said he’s not worried about competition from a new garage on the Jordan’s Meats site. His company has ambitious development plans for the area when the economy improves, he said.

“Parking is a huge burden on a development project,” he said. “The greatest thing about (the East End) is that it’s already built. It’s already an economic tool.”

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

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