PORTLAND – The latest version of a $100 million mixed-use project on Thompson’s Point will require changes to an agreement that would have returned as much as $32 million in property taxes to the developer, according to the city’s economic development director.

On Thursday, a college-level circus conservatory announced it would take up residence in an existing building on the 28-acre former industrial site. Now, developers say they plan to add residences to the development — which will require additional approvals from the city.

Developer Chris Thompson of Forefront Partners I said he is looking to build a mix of residential units on the point, including student housing, live-work spaces and market-rate units. He also plans to renovate two brick buildings that were originally going to be demolished.

One building is a 33,000-square-foot facility that is expected to become the home of the Circus Conservatory of America, which intends to offer bachelors of fine arts degrees in circus arts. The other is a 24,000-square-foot building that could become a “creative cluster” of uses, Thompson said.

The changes are possible now that Suburban Propane is expected to move off the point, freeing 2.5 acres for an event center and parking garage near the railroad tracks.

“We’re redrawing the plan to make the most of that site and put the event center and the garage where they’re meant to be,” Thompson said. “That opens up some opportunities to make this more of a creative, dynamic neighborhood, and we’re pretty excited about that.”

The amendments to the tax break — or tax-increment financing — agreement will likely be taken up by the City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee when revised plans are submitted to the city’s Planning Department, Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said Thursday.

“Some refinement discussions need to occur,” he said.

Thompson expects to file a master plan reflecting the changes within a month or so. He is also seeking to change the terms of a TIF agreement with the city to include the 2.5 acre parcel and renovation of the brick building.

The Forefront at Thompson’s Point has evolved several times since it was first introduced with great fanfare in 2011.

When developers were seeking the tax break from the council in 2011, they showed plans for a 48,000-square-foot convention center that would also serve as a 3,500-seat arena for the Maine Red Claws. It would have been attached to a hotel on one side, and on the other to a music hall that would seat between 1,000 and 2,000 people.

In all, 558,000 square feet of office space, a hotel, a restaurant and event space were envisioned originally, but residential uses were not discussed at the time.

Now two residential buildings are being proposed on the tip of the point along the Fore River, and in June city planners approved a 113,000-square-foot reduction in the development plan.

Councilors contacted Friday were hesitant to judge the project’s evolution before new plans had been submitted to the city.

“In general, we need to anticipate changes, welcome and unwelcome, when involving ourselves in economic development agreements,” said City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who sits on the Housing and Community Development Committee.

Donoghue said in an email he was initially concerned about the tax break because of the amount of office space in the original plan. He believes the decision to reduce the office space and move the event center next to the Portland Transportation Center and train tracks, where Amtrak and bus passengers could easily enter the facility, are welcome changes.

City Councilor John Anton said he was intrigued by the introduction of residential uses on the site.

“Given the proximity to the transportation center, having residential uses right there is a plus,” said Anton, who chairs the Finance Committee.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who served on the community development committee when the tax break was negotiated, said the project seems to have undergone “tremendous changes” based on press reports. Her comfort level with changing the tax deal would depend on the final plan submitted to the city, she said.

“Any major deviation from the original plan approved by the council would require another look,” Leeman said.

According to the 2011 tax agreement, developers would receive up to a $32 million rebate of property taxes over 30 years if they followed a specific development program. They would not begin receiving the rebates until the have added $5 million to the assessed value of the site.

Only certain parts of the project were eligible for the break, and now that the development has changed extensively, the city will have to reconsider the terms.

Developers also received city approval for a temporary surface parking lot, which would allow them to delay the construction of a $28 million parking garage until the event center can be built.

Construction of the event center cannot take place until Suburban Propane is relocated. It is unclear when that will happen.

Mitchell said discussions about possibly locating the company to a city-owned parcel on Riverside Street are ongoing. That land is also being eyed for a consolidated public works facility, he said, so staff is working to ensure there is enough room for both.

The project is progressing more slowly than originally envisioned. Developers only closed on the $7.4 million sale in June. Construction was expected to begin in 2012, and the Red Claws expected to begin playing home games at the event center in 2013, but a shovel has yet to be placed in the ground.

The timing of the project came up several times at a circus conservatory press conference Thursday.

Mayor Michael Brennan thanked Thompson for his “patience and perseverance.”

Paul Andersen, president of Androscoggin Bank, which is financing part of the project, also sounded optimistic.

“Every type of development starts the same way. It starts with one project,” Andersen said at Thursday’s press event. “When one project happens, other projects happen — that’s why this is so significant.”

Mitchell agreed, saying the circus conservatory’s announcement signaled a major milestone.

“From my perspective, this is evidence of the start of the project,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings