July 19, 2012

Critics say Portland condo plan needs commercial use

Developers want to build 65-foot-tall condominium building along Franklin Street.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - A residents group that wants to see Franklin Street converted from a divided arterial to a more livable urban street is concerned that a major development that's planned along the corridor will be a missed opportunity.

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An architectural rendering shows the Newbury Lofts proposal for 24 condominiums in a five-story building on Portland’s Franklin Street.

Archetype Architects

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The block bordered by Newbury, Hampshire, Federal and Franklin streets, as seen from the top of the Courthouse parking garage, is planned for development.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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The Franklin Reclamation Authority is fighting a proposed zoning amendment that would allow developers to build 65-foot-tall condominium building along Franklin Street without planning for commercial use of the first floor, said Markos Miller, a member of the group.

Hampshire Street Properties and the Developer's Collaborative are seeking approvals for two new buildings on a block of Hampshire Street owned almost entirely by S. Donald Sussman, the majority owner of MaineToday Media, including the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

Newbury Lofts calls for 24 condominiums in a five-story building on Franklin Street and a three-story commercial building on the corner of Hampshire and Newbury streets.

Miller said an opportunity exists to reconnect the neighborhood to the downtown, by putting an entrance to the five-story building on Franklin Street while connecting Federal and Newbury streets to Franklin.

"They're failing to do that essentially by turning (the building's) back to Franklin Street," said Miller, who otherwise supports the project.

The property, bordered by Hampshire, Federal, Newbury and Franklin streets, is in a residential zone that limits building heights to 45 feet.

The developers want to rezone the property to a community business zone, which has a maximum building height of 45 feet but allows 5 more feet for buildings that have commercial use on the first floor.

They also are seeking what's known as a zone text amendment for the Franklin Street corridor, to allow a building as tall as 65 feet, without commercial use on the first floor.

Miller said "removing the (commercial use) condition that actually gives the height bonus" would defeat the purpose of the community business zoning.

Tom Federle, an attorney who represents Hampshire Street Properties, said the project design has been driven largely by city codes and feedback from the India Street Neighborhood Association, which has publicly endorsed the plan.

"We dispute that we're turning our backs on Franklin Street," said Federle. "The prominent face of the building is along Franklin."

Federle said city codes require on-site parking, and market research indicates that condo owners expect on-site parking. The developers explored putting a parking garage underground but it wasn't feasible, so the first floor would be devoted to parking.

Architect David Lloyd has been brought on to assist with design elements, such as first-floor windows and balconies, that would orient the building more to Franklin Street, Federle said.

Built in the 1960s, the four-lane, divided Franklin Arterial bisected Federal and Newbury streets, essentially cutting off the India Street neighborhood from downtown.

Neighborhood leaders have long considered the scaling-down of Franklin Street and the reopening of Newbury and Federal streets as key components to revitalizing their neighborhood.

A study group appointed by the City Council and led by Miller completed a report in 2009 outlining three options for improving Franklin Street. This fall, the group will reconvene to choose a plan.

On Tuesday, the Planning Board will take up the proposed zoning change and text amendment and consider other elements, such as reconnecting Newbury and Federal streets during the site plan review.

Federle and Hugh Nazor, secretary and treasurer of the India Street Neighborhood Association, said planning potential changes on Franklin Street could take years, with little to no certainty that they will come to fruition.

"We can't design to a certain vision that may or may not come to pass," Federle said.

But Miller is pushing for the developers to seize what he sees as a rare opportunity to help remake Franklin Street.

"The only way we are going to be able to realize a walkable, active Franklin Street is on a case-by-case basis," Miller said. "We're disappointed they decided not to do that." 

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

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings


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