Sunday, April 20, 2014
Portland officials are considering reclaiming a discontinued street that is now part of the Top of the Old Port parking lot, but an attorney for the lot’s owner questions the city’s right to take back the land, where the owner leases about 50 parking spaces.
The issue dates back to the late 1980s, when the city discontinued Wilmot Street from Congress Street to Cumberland Avenue. Developers wanted to build a 22-story office tower on the site. In exchange for the right of way, the developers agreed to pay the city $60,000, which would be invested in nearby Lincoln Park.
But the tower never was built and the payment never was made. A clause in contract allows the city to reclaim the property for $1.
Now, at least one city councilor is calling for the city to exercise its right to reacquire the 40-foot-wide stretch of land. “There are many ways that land has value,” said City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who represents the district.
By reclaiming the land, the city would have more influence over any redevelopment. Also, the city may want to make it a road again.
Several ambitious redevelopment proposals for the site have surfaced over the years.
In 1987, developers wanted to build a 275-foot-tall office tower on the site, which is bounded by Cumberland Avenue and Congress, Pearl and Franklin streets. Facing opposition, they scaled down the plan to four smaller office towers, ranging from nine to 15 stories.
The project fell victim to a recession and was foreclosed on in 1991. Three years later, the property was sold to the Contos family of Boston for $1.9 million.
In 1999, the site was considered for sports arena, but the project never moved forward.
Top of the Old Port parking has benefited from the 420-foot-long stretch of land, where it rents out 53 parking spaces. Spaces in the lot rent for $85 a month.
The roughly 530-space parking lot is managed by Dirigo Property Management, which did not return a call for comment about how the business would be affected if the city reclaimed the street.
Christopher Howard, the attorney who represents the Contoses, said the family has been discussing the Wilmot Street issue with the city off and on for several years. Those discussions – which he described as preliminary – have intensified in recent months, Howard said.
The discussions have centered mainly on whether the city has the right to acquire the land, whether the city should exercise such a right, what the ramifications would be, and what the best solution is.
“The question is whether that $1 purchase price is still effective,” said Howard, who says the city’s rights to reclaim the land are questionable.
The City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee discussed the city’s options in a private meeting Wednesday.
The Contoses are waiting to see what direction the committee gives the city’s staff before disclosing their next move, but Howard said the family doesn’t want to lose ownership of the discontinued street because that would decrease the value of the property.
“It makes sense to have it has an integrated parcel as opposed having a narrow strip taken out of the middle of it,” Howard said.
When the subject surfaced in 2010, the family offered to pay the city $60,000 to release its right to reclaim the property. “It never went anywhere after that,” Howard said. “It just fell off the radar screen.”
Markos Miller, who lives on Munjoy Hill, is following the issue as a taxpayer and a member of the city’s Franklin Street study group, which is looking at ways to make the traffic arterial a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly street.
He says the city should reclaim the street as a way to influence any future redevelopment of the land.
“It puts the city in a stronger position,” Miller said. “As a taxpayer, I’d like to see the city take possession of it.”
Jay York of Wilmot Street has been following the issue for years. He says the city should reclaim the property as a matter of good governance. A private company shouldn’t profit from public land that it never paid for, he said.
“The City Council is losing money by not making a decision about this while the Contos family is making money,” York said. “It’s only the city’s incompetence and inaction that has allowed this to go on this long.”Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @randybillings