January 13

Court ruling buoys foes of Portland ‘midtown’ development

The project, which could face a Planning Board vote Tuesday, could be overturned with city approval, which a court did for a separate case.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

If the Bayside project gets city approval, maybe it can be overturned, as a court did in a separate case. But supporters see no correlation.

click image to enlarge

A Press Herald photo illustration combines an aerial photo of the Bayside neighborhood with the developers’ architectural model of the buildings proposed for the “midtown” project. The view is in the direction of Marginal Way and Interstate 295.

Staff photo illustration by Christian MilNeil and T.E.D. Andrick

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Bayside’s future skyline

before
after

A composite image of Google Street View imagery and digitized architectural models shows the Bayside neighborhood and the proposed new 'midtown' buildings, looking south from I-295. Imagery from Google and from the City of Portland.

Find a larger version of this interactive and additional photo illustrations of the new development here: The ‘midtown’ development: views of Bayside’s new skyline

A recent court ruling against the city of Portland’s effort to introduce office uses in a different residential neighborhood is giving hope to opponents of a massive $150 million development proposed for Bayside.

Representatives of the developers, however, say the ruling will have no effect on the so-called “midtown” project, which could face a Planning Board vote Tuesday.

A Cumberland County Superior Court judge ruled Dec. 31 in favor of a dozen West End neighborhood residents who argued that allowing office uses in the historic Williston-West Church violated the city’s Comprehensive Plan, a state-mandated document that guides development in a community.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said last week that he was surprised the court overturned votes by both the Planning Board and the City Council. “That certainly creates some issues not only for the city of Portland but municipalities throughout the state,” he said.

The Maine Municipal Association informed its members of the court’s ruling, said spokesman Eric Conrad. MMA is refraining from drawing any lessons about the ruling until Portland decides whether it will appeal, he said.

The court ruling could add a new wrinkle to an ambitious development proposal in Bayside that is currently in front of the Planning Board. Opponents have vowed to appeal any approvals of the project on the basis it doesn’t comply with the Comprehensive Plan.

The “midtown” project envisions 675 market-rate apartments in four towers of about 15 stories each, 1,100 parking spaces in two garages, and 93,000 square feet of retail space on Somerset Street near Back Cove.

The first phase, which is being considered by the Planning Board along with a master development plan for the entire project, would consist of 235 market-rate apartments in a 165-foot-tall building, a 705-vehicle parking garage and first-floor retail space.

Proponents argue that the project complies with the Comprehensive Plan and the “New Vision for Bayside,” which was incorporated into the Comprehensive Plan in 2001. That plan calls for high-density housing that promotes a livable, walkable neighborhood, while at the same time cleaning up a contaminated site that was previously the location of a scrapyard.

“It absolutely mirrors the Comprehensive Plan and the vision for Bayside,” said Greg Shinberg, the local representative of midtown’s Miami-based developer, The Federated Cos. Shinberg accused the opponents of mischaracterizing the project.

Keep Portland Livable, which opposes the project, argues the opposite and is raising funds to appeal any Planning Board approval of the project in court.

Peter Monro, the group’s co-founder, points to the number of waivers and conditions of approval the project is seeking as evidence it “diverges from the spirit and intent” of the plan. He also cites the project’s impact on view corridors, street connectivity, sidewalks and ground-level wind as examples.

“There are a surprising number of significant problems with this project,” Monro said. “We believe there are significant negative impacts at the street level that should make this project unapprovable.”

When the Planning Board last considered the project in December, The Federated Cos. sought 20 waivers and nearly 50 conditions of approval.

Rick Knowland, a senior planner with the city, said in an email Thursday he expects a few of those conditions and waivers to be eliminated, based on new designs.

Shinberg, a local developer, said he cannot think of a project in the city that has been approved without a waiver or condition of approval to deviate from technical standards.

“You seek a waiver to improve the project. We’re not trying to end-run around the rules,” he said. “No project is going to fit every rule perfectly.”

Monro has said his group would be willing to take its appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court should the Superior Court rule in favor of the city. But the Williston-West ruling is giving the group hope.

“There’s a shift in outlook here,” he said. “It may turn out that a full and fair hearing could be held in Superior Court.”

Attorney Gary Vogel, who is representing The Federated Cos., said the parallels between Williston-West and “midtown” are not that strong. The Williston-West case turned on the fact that the city granted a contract zone that allowed a new commercial use for a residential neighborhood. That is not the case with “midtown,” which is being proposed in a business district, he said.

The “midtown” project did receive a zone map change that increased the allowable height of the buildings, and zone text amendments that altered design standards. But Shinberg said those changes will allow for a more attractive building to be built on a narrow, contaminated lot.

Vogel and Shinberg highlighted changes to the project that have come out of the lengthy planning process, including the widening of some sidewalks, raising the Bayside Trail and withdrawing a request to build on a portion of land intended to be a gateway to the trail.

“We think the project is better because of it,” Vogel said.

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

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings

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