May 17, 2012

Developers try again in India Street neighborhood

A 94-unit apartment building, a 26-unit condominium complex and a multi-use building beside the Hampton Inn are proposed.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The India Street neighborhood is poised for a building boom that was supposed to happen years ago but was stalled by the recession, although some of the projects are not at the same level of opulence that was once envisioned for the area.

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The 94-unit apartment building proposed for the Portland site formerly occupied by the Village Cafe is creating controversy because of its height: 74 feet in an area zoned for 45-foot height limits.

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This is the Middle Street view of the mixed-use building proposed for the former Jordan's Meats site.

Additional Photos Below

Three significant development projects are in the works, each with varying levels of support from the neighborhood. The projects are:

a 94-unit apartment building on the former site of the Village Cafe;

a  26-unit condominium project on Franklin Street; and

a multi-use building at the former site of Jordan’s Meats.

Before the recession, several developers were planning on building luxury condominiums. Also, the high-end hotel chain Westin Hotel & Resorts was eyeing the former Jordan Meats site, now partially occupied by a Hampton Inn.

The developers of one of the condominium projects, the Bay House, now plan to build an apartment building because it couldn’t get financing for a condominium project. The condo market is now seen as too risky.

“It looks like the economy is warming up again, but for projects that are probably more realistic,” said Alex Jaegerman, director of the city’s planning division.

The proposal for the Village Cafe site is creating the most controversy. In 2008, the developers planned to build an 82-unit condominium complex, but banks since the recession have stopped lending money for condominium construction, said Nathan Smith, a Portland attorney representing the developers, Demetri Dasco of Boston and Gordon Reger of Buffalo, New York.

He said the developers have found financing for a market-rate apartment building and plan to ask the City Council for a tax break, called tax increment financing, for an undisclosed amount of money.

Smith said the project’s benefits include repairs to streets and sidewalks in the immediate area, burying utility lines and turning a unsightly vacant lot into housing.

Smith said development in Portland occurs in “fits and starts” and that the city needs to help make this project happen before the economic climate changes again. “It’s important to know the right time for when the window of opportunity is open,” he said.

The city has previously approved a site plan for the project. The Planning Board will hold a workshop on Tuesday to discuss amending the plan, such as reducing the parking from two enclosed floors to one, thus reducing the building height by 5 to 6 feet.

The developers on Tuesday will also ask planners to amend its conditional zone agreement to allow for a 10-year payment plan for the $200,000 they had promised for improvements on Hancock Street.

Local residents have never liked the project because they believe it’s out of scale with the neighborhood, said Hugh Nazor, the secretary and treasurer of India Street Neighborhood Association. It was permitted to be 74 feet high in area zoned for 45-foot height limits, he said.

He said he doesn’t see how this project could qualify for a tax break from the city because it does not provide any public good. “This is something that is not really beneficial for anybody,’ he said.

Joe Malone, a commercial real estate broker who is vice president of the neighborhood association, said he is curious to see how the City Council responds to the request for the tax break because the city has never before granted a tax break for market-rate housing. The city would benefit from the construction of a market-rate apartment building, something that hasn’t happened for decades, Malone said, because it will bring more life to downtown.

Still, Malone said most residents consider the building to be too large. Likewise, he said, they think the multi-use building proposed for the former Jordan’s Meats site is too large. The project would be built next door to the Hampton Inn by the same developers of the hotel, Greg Kirsh  and Mark Woglom of Opechee Construction.

The proposed five-story building would include 18 condominium units, nine retail units and 66,000 square feet of office space. Parking for 166 cars would located in an internal garage and provide parking for both the project and the adjacent hotel and Sebago Brewing Company restaurant.

Given its downtown location, the developers could have build a much larger project, Nazor said. Given the alternative, residents of are generally supportive of the project, Nazor said.

Nazor said residents are most enthusiastic about a 26-unit condominium project being developed by S. Donald Sussman, who owns a home in the neighborhood, and Kevin Bunker of Developers Collaborative.

The condominiums would be built along Franklin Street, between Federal, Newbury and Hampshire streets.

The modest scale of the project allows it to fit in with the neighborhood, Nazor said. Although some people don’t like its modern design, the project will replace some dilapidated and boarded-up tenement buildings, he said.

“It’s wonderful for the neighborhood,” he said. “They are taking the very worst section of the neighborhood and bringing it up to something that is very much a positive.”

Malone, who owns several buildings in the neighborhood, said he will not oppose any of the projects, even if he thinks they are too large or could be improved.

“I am gung-ho on all of them,” he said. “I hope they all get built.”

Sussman is the majority owner of MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and other media outlets in Maine.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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Nathan Smith, a Portland attorney, stands at the site of the former Village Cafe, which was demolished in 2008. Smith represents developers who want to build a 94-unit apartment building on the site.

Photo by Tom Bell / Staff Writer

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A 26-unit condominium project being developed by S. Donald Sussman and Kevin Bunker of Developers Collaborative would be built along Franklin Street between Federal, Newbury and Hampshire streets.

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