There’s a neighborhood to the left and a synagogue to the right, and stuck in the middle might be a new Dunkin’ Donuts and its drive-thru.
On Monday, the South Portland City Council will consider the first part of a package of zoning changes that could help determine the fate – and the final site – of the proposed Dunkin’ Donuts shop.
An initial plan to tear down a former church to make way for the Dunkin’ Donuts upset neighbors who said a 24-hour restaurant with a drive-thru would bring light and noise pollution. But a newer plan that would spare the church has drawn criticism from a synagogue, whose leaders are worried about losing valuable sunlight.
The hullabaloo began in December, when Cafua Management, a Massachusetts-based conglomeration of the famous New England coffee and pastry franchises, bought the St. John the Evangelist Church property at the corner of Thirlmere Avenue and Main Street. The company proposed tearing down the church to build a 24-hour Dunkin’ Donuts to replace an aging shop nearby on Main Street.
But because of pending zoning changes that would make the church site unworkable for a 24-hour restaurant with a drive-thru window, the city is now considering leasing a 2.3-acre former park a few steps away on Main Street. The park is next to the Bet Ha’am Synagogue, at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets.
The convoluted development process has raised the question of whether the new zoning requirements will save the church’s neighbors from the distraction of a 24-hour restaurant, only to raise a new question of whether a tall building containing a Dunkin’ Donuts could block sunlight from the synagogue’s glass-walled sanctuary.
“I want to make sure the neighbors around the church aren’t having a 24-hour drive-thru, because that’s upsetting for them, and we want to make sure we still have sunlight coming into our garden and our sanctuary,” said Lisa Munderback, president of the Bet Ha’am congregation. “I hope Cafua will come to some mutually agreeable solution.”
With the new zoning rules, which are now in the hands of the City Council and could be approved as soon as late May, the church site and the former park will each come under different requirements.
At the church site, the new zoning will prohibit 24-hour restaurants and drive-thru windows, which are now allowed. Called the Main Street Zone, the new guidelines were written to produce a pedestrian experience that mimics Knightville, with its walkable street designs and shops that come close to the sidewalk, said Tex Haeuser, South Portland’s planning and development director.
Different zoning, called the Thornton Heights District, will apply to the city-owned green space, where new rules will allow far denser residential development than what was permitted in the past, along with a higher limit on new buildings of 70 feet or six stories – triggering the worries of Munderback and her congregation.
The city is negotiating with Cafua for a multi-year lease of the former park property, said Mayor Jerry Jalbert. Cafua did not respond to a request for comment.
Adding another wrinkle is a 2005 agreement between the city and the synagogue that gives Bet Ha’am the right of first refusal to buy the park property, a provision left over from a sale to the synagogue of the adjacent and then-vacant Alice Sawyer school building. That right of refusal expires Dec. 31, 2015. It does not prevent the city from leasing the space before that date, Jalbert said.
At the time of the sale of the former school in 2005, the synagogue and at least two developers tried to buy the entire property, which included the 2.3-acre former park. The city chose to sell the school building to the synagogue, but separated and retained the park property. At the time, city councilors said that the space could some day return to being a public park, according to Munderback.
Jalbert said the council will have to sign off on any lease with Cafua, giving the councilors and their constituents another chance to weigh in on the plan.
“My perception is that the council is split on this,” Jalbert said. “Eventually, the City Council will have to make a decision whether we’re going to sign a lease.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: