Portland’s Planning Board voted Tuesday to approve a $105 million high-rise development on a former scrapyard in the Bayside neighborhood, even as board members said they felt it would be too large and out of character with the surrounding neighborhood.
Members also expressed skepticism about the developer’s commitment to completing the three-phase project, but said they were satisfied that it complies with the city’s ordinance and comprehensive plan, and that they had done all they could to improve it.
“I can’t make my decision based on an emotional reaction or an emotional response,” said board member Elizabeth Boepple.
Board member Jack Soley said the project “washes away in a sea of banality” all of the characteristics that make Portland an attractive and livable city — its architecture and its pedestrian experience.
The vote closed more than two years of discussion about the project proposed by the Miami-based Federated Cos. The plan calls for construction of four 165-foot towers on Somerset Street over the next 10 years.
The Planning Board held six workshops and two public hearings on midtown, which divided residents.
Keep Portland Livable, a group that formed to oppose the project, has not decided whether it will appeal the approval to Superior Court — as it has threatened. The group has 30 days to file an appeal.
“We will need to talk about it,” said Sandra Guay, the attorney who is representing the group.
Midtown envisions 650 to 850 market-rate apartments in four towers of about 15 stories each, 1,100 parking spaces in two garages and 100,000 square feet of retail space on Somerset Street, near Back Cove.
The first phase comprises 235 market-rate apartments in a 165-foot-tall building, a 705-vehicle parking garage and first-floor retail space.
The project is planned for a narrow, 3.25-acre parcel that is now owned by the city. The Federated Cos. received about 20 waivers from city standards and nearly 50 conditions of approval to move the project forward.
Keep Portland Livable says that’s proof that the project doesn’t conform to the city’s comprehensive plan.
But Planning Director Alex Jaegerman said the project meets several key objectives in the master plan for Bayside, including extending the downtown district and adding high-density housing and economic development opportunities, all while cleaning up a contaminated site.
Tim Paradis, a co-founder of Keep Portland Livable, implored the board not to bow to political pressure and the “big pile of money” the developer is offering to invest.
“City involvement in this project does not change the rules that you are charged with enforcing,” he said.
Greg Mitchell, the city’s economic development director, sought to clarify and defend the city’s role in the project, which dates back to May 2010, when the city entered into an agreement to sell the land.
In April, the City Council voted to increase the height limit for the first tower from 125 feet to 165 feet.
Mitchell said the project is not receiving any tax breaks. Federated Cos. will receive $9 million in federal funds, which the city will repay, to build a parking garage, which could free up more land for development.
Board members asked city attorney Jennifer Thompson how the project would be affected by a Superior Court ruling on Dec. 31 that overturned the City Council’s decision to allow offices in a historic church in the West End.
Thompson said the finding that the development wouldn’t conform to the city’s comprehensive plan may have some bearing on midtown. But she noted that the decision doesn’t set a precedent until the Maine Supreme Judicial Court rules. That will happen only if the city appeals the ruling, which it hasn’t decided to do yet.
The Planning Board held a public hearing on Dec. 10 and delayed a scheduled vote. About 50 people weighed in on the proposal, most of them opposing the project.
On Tuesday, about 40 people testified during a 90-minute hearing. The testimony was more balanced.
Peter Monro, a co-founder of Keep Portland Livable provided the board with a 12-page memo outlining his views about how the project doesn’t comply with the city’s comprehensive plan.
Monro said additional information submitted by the developer fails to meet city requirements, including a shadow assessment, a wind assessment and a three-dimensional model.
“The rules are the rules,” Monro said. “You should not vote on this project because the application is not complete.”
Developers contend that a market rate, residential, high-rise tower is the type of housing that will draw young professionals to Portland.
“It’s not just good for Bayside,” said Greg Shinberg, the developer’s local representative. “It’s good for Portland. It’s good for Greater Portland. And it is consistent with the master plan.”
But Tim Johnston, a computer programmer and videographer, said he and his circle of friends would never move into housing like midtown.
“This does not seem like charming housing, in my opinion,” he said.
Shinberg said an economic analysis shows that the construction of 235 apartments alone would generate $33 million in direct and indirect economic benefits.
Tradesmen and construction professionals, like Tom Donnelly of Westbrook-based CCB Inc. Construction Services, said the project will mean short- and long-term employment for an industry that continues to struggle.
The project also will transform the city’s “back door” into a gateway, Donnelly said.
“It is a very rare opportunity,” he said. “There’s never going to be a perfect solution. The plan we’re being presented by Federated may be imperfect, but it’s the only one.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @randybillings____________This story was updated at 3:34 p.m. on Jan. 15 to correct the name of Sandra Guay.