The Portland City Council voted 7-0 – with Mayor Ethan Strimling and Council Spencer Thibodeau absent – to grant an overlay zone to Maine Medical Center that would allow it to acquire neighborhood properties in the future and convert them to medical offices.

Councilor David Brenerman said the zoning is the best way to plan for the future needs of Maine Med, even if the overlay zone includes properties that are not owned by the hospital.

“I think it’s better to identify the possible sites now than to have the plan amended in the future,” Brenerman said. “We have created an opportunity for the hospital to work with the neighborhood as it has been doing. And we’re trying to place limits on what those buildings on Congress and St. John streets might be.”

Maine Med’s request for the overlay zone is part of plans to increase its footprint by about 25 percent and add 19 operating rooms and 128 single-occupancy patient rooms.

Residents who live near Maine Med aren’t as concerned about the expansion as they are about the possible loss of neighborhood properties under the overlay zone.

Tim McNamara, president of the St. John Valley Neighborhood Association, said the proposal should be returned to the Planning Board for further consideration to avoid the potential loss of popular businesses such as Salvage BBQ and Pizza Villa, as well as 19 units of housing.

“We consider ourselves as part of a neighborhood, not as a medical district,” McNamara said. “Please protect our neighborhood from being overrun by Maine Medical Center.”

Maine Med is the first entity to ask the city to approve an Institutional Overlay Zone, which covers the surrounding area so future development meshes with the neighborhood. The goal of the zoning is to get large institutions in the city like Maine Med to consider their long-term needs, rather than growing haphazardly.

The cornerstone of the $512 million expansion would be a 270,000-square-foot building along Congress Street that would serve as the hospital’s main entrance and include 64 inpatient beds and the operating rooms, replacing an existing parking garage.

In September, the state approved Maine Med’s “Certificate of Need,” a critical step toward beginning the project in spring 2018.

The most extensive renovation in Maine Med’s history is scheduled to be completed by 2022, but first it must go through the city’s approval process, which includes allowing the zoning change.

A half-dozen nearby residents said they do not object to the first phase of the expansion, but they’re worried about what might come next in the areas between Vaughan and Chadwick streets, Congress and A streets and Forest and Gilman streets.

The project was supported Monday by several physicians, other Maine Med staff and the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. Chamber CEO Quincy Hentzel said the hospital should be allowed to expand so it can deliver quality medical services and attract young workers.

“We feel this is going to spur development in the St. John Valley area and approve the amenities in the neighborhood,” she said.

Attempting to allay concerns, the council approved several amendments to the proposal.

The council adopted an amendment from Councilor Thibodeau, who is recovering from appendicitis, that would require Maine Med to offer a $30,000 grant to surrounding neighborhoods. The funding will be allocated by a neighborhood council established with the overlay zone.

The council also supported an amendment by Councilor Belinda Ray that requires Maine Med to plan on active first-floor uses if its does expand into the some areas that have raised concerns from residents.

“With the amendments that have been offered, this is how the neighborhood would have the most control over what happens at those sites,” Ray said. “Should Maine Med acquire those parcels, what they could do there is very prescribed.”

Councilor Brian Batson decided not to recuse himself from the overlay zone vote even though he works as a nurse at Maine Med.

Anne Pringle, president of the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association, supported the zoning proposal recommended by the Planning Board. She noted that Maine Med has been responsive to neighborhood concerns.

“Unlike the past, Maine Med has been very responsive, though not to the extent some would like,” Pringle said. “We’d rather have a sense of where they’re planning to expand, rather than being surprised five years from now.”

Maine Med already has changed its original parking plans after the neighborhood objected to a proposal to build a 13-story garage at Congress and Gilman streets. Now a 10-story garage is being proposed at 222 St. John St., about a quarter mile from the hospital. The new garage, with about 2,000 spaces, would be on property that the hospital already leases for surface parking for employees.

The existing parking garage on the Maine Med campus will be demolished.

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

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