PORTLAND – Plans for a 400-seat performance hall on Munjoy Hill got mixed reviews at a neighborhood meeting that drew about 75 people Monday night.

While supporters said the venue would be a catalyst for positive changes in the neighborhood, others questioned its contemporary design and whether there is enough space for parking in the area to accommodate so many people.

The Friends of the St. Lawrence Church have proposed the modern-looking, 410-seat performance hall on the site where the church’s sanctuary once stood, at 76 Congress St.

Monday’s meeting was held to get residents familiar with the proposal and gather input before the friends group goes before city boards for approval.

Organizers told residents that the plan could change, especially the building design.

“This is our first step, to present the plan to the neighborhood,” said David Lloyd, the project’s architect.

“There is nothing cast in stone here.”

Last week, the Friends of the St. Lawrence Church presented their plan to the city’s Historic Preservation Board for preliminary review.

They still need final approval from the preservation board, as well as the Planning Board, and an amendment of a contract zone that the City Council approved in 2010.

In 2010, the group got preliminary city approval for a hall that would have had the same amount of seating and replicated the 19th-century Gothic-style exterior of the St. Lawrence church and bell tower — which were demolished in 2008 after being deemed a safety hazard by the city.

Potential donors balked at the estimated $12 million to $17 million cost of that plan, so the Friends of the St. Lawrence Church regrouped and proposed a new performance hall, which would cost about $7 million to build.

The new hall would be covered with a perforated metal skin that would be backlit at night. It would have a promenade room above the theater — a space where people could gather for meetings or to look out over the city and Portland Harbor.

Vana Carmona, a Munjoy Hill resident, said she was “a little bit in shock” when she saw a rendering of the building in the Portland Press Herald.

“I’m not feeling the ‘wow’ factor with this building,” Carmona said. “I feel like I’ve seen this building a few too many times” in her travels around the world.

Others described Lloyd’s proposal as “boxy” and out of character with the surrounding buildings.

“I feel the design here does not really represent the city in any way,” said Barbara Epstein, a tour guide who lives in North Deering. “I don’t want visitors saying, ‘What is that monstrosity?’

“I don’t think the design is quite there yet,” said Jamie Parker. “It’s a bit boxy.”

Parker said he would support a contemporary design because it would celebrate the changes — new businesses and home modernizations — that are happening on Munjoy Hill.

Cliff Gallant described the design as a “big rectangular box.” He called on the Friends group to provide an alternative that’s more in character with the neighborhood.

Deirdre Nice, executive director of the Friends of the St. Lawrence Church, said the new venue would host concerts, plays and community meetings.

Some people questioned whether there is adequate space for parking to support such a large concert venue.

Nice said the 2010 plan that was approved by the city calls for satellite parking lots and a shuttle service. 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com