March 12, 2010

Discontinued section of street resurfaces as issue in Portland

By DENNIS HOEY Staff Writer

— By DENNIS HOEY

click image to enlarge

John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Friday, March,6, 2009. Wilmot st. at Cumberland Ave. in Portland was closed across Cumberland Ave. as it went through the Top of the Old Port parking lot seen here as students walk by the blocked off street.

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — You could call it the street that time, and the city of Portland, forgot.

But now, more than 20 years after it was discontinued, a 420-foot-long section of Wilmot Street is moving toward the center of a discussion about the future of one of downtown Portland's most visible parcels of land.

The Portland City Council's Community Development Committee has been asked to consider what advantages there might be to the city's reasserting its ownership rights over the 40-foot-wide section of Wilmot Street that slices through the middle of the Top of the Old Port Parking lot.

The lot is sandwiched between Cumberland Avenue, Congress Street, Pearl Street and Franklin Arterial.

The Contos family of Boston, which owns the parking lot, has offered to pay the city $60,000 as a good-faith gesture toward settling the ownership question, but some in city government, as well as residents of the Bayside neighborhood, say that that offer may not be enough.

''The city needs to take it and to hold on to it,'' said Jay York, a longtime resident of Wilmot Street. ''By holding on to it, the city could use the land to leverage development more in the scale with the existing neighborhood.''

The ownership issue was raised at last Tuesday's meeting of the City Council by Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who said the street's ownership was brought to his attention recently by Bayside residents. His district includes the neighborhood.

Personally, Donoghue said he would like to see the right-of- way converted into a pedestrian walkway.

But he added, ''I am flexible as to the outcome. Regardless of what we do, I see this as benefiting the city.''

The Wilmot Street section in question was discontinued as a city street in 1988 so that a development group could build three office towers. The project fell through, and the developers failed to make the required $60,000 in improvements to Lincoln Park.

That meant the city still retains the right to reacquire the roadway for $1.

City Attorney Gary Wood said it's unlikely the city would reopen the street, which is nearly in line with Franklin Towers and Lincoln Park.

A section of Wilmot Street, beginning at Franklin Towers and ending at the Earle W. Noyes Moving Co., remains an active city street, providing access to a home and four apartment buildings.

Wood said the ownership question last came up in the early 1990s, when then-City Manager Robert Ganley asked the legal department to research the issue. At that time, the city determined it owned the road.

''It got dropped for whatever reason. I don't remember,'' Wood said. The Community Development Committee will likely address the issue at its April meeting, Wood said.

Alex Landry, chairman of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said, ''I think it had been forgotten.''

''It's a super block. It's a block that is out of scale with our neighborhood,'' Landry added, referring to its development potential.

In late 2004, Portland businessman Joseph Boulos proposed a $245 million plan to develop the Top of the Old Port and an adjacent lot -- owned by Blethen Maine Newspapers, which owns the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram -- into a 17-story office building, 10,000-seat arena, convention center and new hotel.

Christopher E. Howard, a Portland-based lawyer who is serving as spokesman for the Contos family, said they believe the city does not have the legal right to reacquire the discontinued street.

''The city just can't jump up and exercise a right that they haven't mentioned before in the last 15 years,'' Howard said.

During that time, the Contos family has resurfaced and landscaped the parking lot. And last year, they paid more than $78,000 in property taxes. The family has paid nearly $850,000 in taxes since it acquired Top of the Old Port in 1994.

If the street section were to be closed, 53 parking spaces would be eliminated, and the value of the lot would decrease substantially, the family argues.

The Contoses say the parking lot is one of the most accessible and affordable parking areas for workers in downtown Portland.

Howard said the Contos family has no intention of developing anything on the site in the near future, but splitting the lot in half would hinder any future effort to lure a developer to the site.

''If this (idea) were to go forward, it would send a very negative message about doing business in Portland,'' Howard said.

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

dhoey@pressherald.com

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