By Randy Billings
PORTLAND — Potential investors vowed Thursday to keep pursuing their dream of opening a small upscale restaurant in the West End after the city's Zoning Board of Appeals denied a request to waive off-street parking requirements.
Neil Reiter said opening an eatery "is just a passion of mine."
Reiter wanted to lease the ground floor space of a single-family home at 227 York St. for a restaurant.
But Portland's zoning requires restaurants in any neighborhood business zone to provide an off-street parking space for every 150 square feet of floor space that's open to the public.
Reiter would have had to provide three off-street parking spaces.
With no room on the property for parking and no space to lease nearby, he sought a variance from the zoning board.
To get the variance, Reiter and the property owner had to meet four requirements, one of which was proving that without a variance, the property would lose all beneficial use.
Tom Landry, who manages the property for A Better Maine LLC, told the board that while tenants are occupying the four-bedroom apartment in the house, the rent is not enough to cover the expenses.
At a $100-a-month loss, Landry said, the landlord cannot make necessary improvements to the property, which was purchased and partially renovated about two years ago.
The Reiters were prepared to make significant investments to save the circa-1860s building, without getting any equity in return, he said.
"It's a dump," Landry said. "It could be condemned."
But the majority of board members were not swayed.
When pressed by the board, Landry admitted that the unfinished space on the ground floor was never marketed for any commercial uses that would not require parking, like retail.
"There currently is a beneficial use to the property as a residential rental unit," said board member Mark Bower.
"The applicant did not meet the burden to show there are no other beneficial uses other than the restaurant they're requesting."
Board member William Getz said the issues with the property's condition appear to stem more from "undercapitalization by the investors" than limitations on the property itself -- an important legal threshold in granting variances.
More than a dozen residents showed up for the hearing, but only a few spoke.
Rosanne Graef, president of the West End Neighborhood Association, urged the board to reject the waiver.
But Seth Harkness, who has lived one block from the proposed restaurant for six years, said he didn't think the parking waiver would negatively affect the neighborhood, as some have suggested.
"I've never been not able to park near my house," he said. "The three parking spots we're talking about here are not enough to outweigh the benefits" of a neighborhood restaurant.
Things got heated after the board denied the request by a 3-2 vote.
Lauren Reiter, the project's architect, and Stella Hernandez, a co-owner of Bar Lola, pressed the board on several procedural matters before vowing to redouble their efforts to find off-site parking.
Board Chairman Gordon Smith told the investors that the ordinance allows them to lease parking spots within 1,500 feet of the building. If they did that, they would not need a variance, he said.
If that fails, Smith said, they could ask the City Council to get rid of the off-street parking requirement for the neighborhood business zone.
"It's a stupid requirement that doesn't benefit the space," said Smith, who argued in support of the waiver.
Lauren Reiter said she will do what it takes to open the restaurant. "We're going to try like crazy."
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: