PORTLAND – Bangor-based Husson University wants to establish a higher profile in southern Maine by developing a campus in Maine’s largest city.
Husson officials confirmed Wednesday that they are seeking approval from the city of Portland for a new campus on a 7-acre parcel on outer Congress Street, near Unum, the Stroudwater neighborhood and the Portland International Jetport.
Husson University, which changed its name from Husson College in 2008, now operates a satellite campus in the Mall Plaza Shopping Center in South Portland and another in Presque Isle. Its main campus is in Bangor.
The proposed development site at 1945 Congress St. is now home to Portland Lodge 188 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. The fraternal organization has an option to buy another property to serve as its new home. Husson is considering leasing the Elks building from a developer who would buy it.
Before the project can move forward, Husson and the Elks need a zoning amendment from the city to allow colleges, universities or trade schools to operate in the residential zone. Those uses are not permitted under the current zoning.
Portland’s Planning Board considered the zoning amendment Tuesday night but ended up deadlocked over whether it should be approved. The proposal will now go to the City Council without a recommendation from the Planning Board. Councilors have the authority to change zoning.
John Rubino, Husson’s vice president of administration, said that while the university has a presence in the Portland area, operating out of a shopping mall doesn’t project its true image as a university that offers four-year, master’s and doctorate degrees.
Mark Malone, a partner in Malone Commercial Brokers, which has represented the Elks before the Planning Board, attended Tuesday’s meeting, at which board members voted 3-3 on the plan.
“Last night was not a very positive step for us,” he said Wednesday. “The vote is certainly not what I expected to happen.”
Malone said the City Council will give the proposed zoning change a first reading on March 5, with a final vote scheduled for March 19.
Alex Jaegerman, the city’s planning director, said three Planning Board members – Carol Morrisette, David Silk and Timothy Dean – were reluctant to approve the change because they felt that a contract zoning arrangement would give the city more control over the proposed campus development.
Malone said a contract zoning agreement is unacceptable because the Elks have a tight time frame for acquiring a new property. Jaegerman said a contract zoning agreement could take as long as two months to complete.
Planning Board members also expressed concern that allowing a university in a residential zone would open up other residential areas to similar developments, Jaegerman said.
“Most members felt this use made sense in that location. The difference of opinion was on the zoning method to use to make it happen,” he said. “The City Council will have to interpret this (board vote) as best they can.”
Malone said a developer – whose identity is not being released yet – has agreed to buy the Elks property.
The developer could renovate the building or undertake new construction. Husson University would then lease the building, whose size would be capped at 23,000 square feet.
Husson University, in documents filed with the Planning Department, says the existing parking lot could accommodate 200 cars. The campus would have 10 to 12 classrooms, but no housing. Most classes would be held in the evening, with all classes ending by 10 p.m.
Husson anticipates that the campus initially would have 350 students, with enrollment expected to grow over a period of years to 440 students.
The residents of one nearby home have expressed concern about the proposal. William Linnell and Joyce Gauthier of 1905 Congress St. said in a letter to the Planning Department that allowing a school to hold night classes would disrupt the neighborhood when it usually is quiet.
But Elizabeth Hoglund, a spokeswoman for the Stroudwater Village Association, said nearly all of her members support the university’s plan.
“We do support this project. It certainly won’t be any worse than what is already there,” Hoglund said.
Malone declined to say where the Elks might be moving.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: