January 15

Portland approves $105 million ‘midtown’ project

Planners approve the plan for four high-rise towers in Bayside despite misgivings, neighbor protests and a lawsuit threat.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Surrounded by overflow spectators in the balcony at City Hall, Peter Monro speaks against the “midtown” project during the public comments part of the Planning Board meeting Tuesday evening. Standing at right, Dick Stevens awaits his turn to speak.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Portland’s Planning Board voted Tuesday to approve a $105 million high-rise development on a former scrapyard in the Bayside neighborhood, even as board members said they felt it would be too large and out of character with the surrounding neighborhood.

Members also expressed skepticism about the developer’s commitment to completing the three-phase project, but said they were satisfied that it complies with the city’s ordinance and comprehensive plan, and that they had done all they could to improve it.

“I can’t make my decision based on an emotional reaction or an emotional response,” said board member Elizabeth Boepple.

Board member Jack Soley said the project “washes away in a sea of banality” all of the characteristics that make Portland an attractive and livable city – its architecture and its pedestrian experience.

The vote closed more than two years of discussion about the project proposed by the Miami-based Federated Cos. The plan calls for construction of four 165-foot towers on Somerset Street over the next 10 years.

The Planning Board held six workshops and two public hearings on midtown, which divided residents.

Keep Portland Livable, a group that formed to oppose the project, has not decided whether it will appeal the approval to Superior Court – as it has threatened. The group has 30 days to file an appeal.

“We will need to talk about it,” said Sandra Guay, the attorney who is representing the group.

Midtown envisions 650 to 850 market-rate apartments in four towers of about 15 stories each, 1,100 parking spaces in two garages and 100,000 square feet of retail space on Somerset Street, near Back Cove.

The first phase comprises 235 market-rate apartments in a 165-foot-tall building, a 705-vehicle parking garage and first-floor retail space.

The project is planned for a narrow, 3.25-acre parcel that is now owned by the city. The Federated Cos. received about 20 waivers from city standards and nearly 50 conditions of approval to move the project forward.

Keep Portland Livable says that’s proof that the project doesn’t conform to the city’s comprehensive plan.

But Planning Director Alex Jaegerman said the project meets several key objectives in the master plan for Bayside, including extending the downtown district and adding high-density housing and economic development opportunities, all while cleaning up a contaminated site.

Tim Paradis, a co-founder of Keep Portland Livable, implored the board not to bow to political pressure and the “big pile of money” the developer is offering to invest.

“City involvement in this project does not change the rules that you are charged with enforcing,” he said.

Greg Mitchell, the city’s economic development director, sought to clarify and defend the city’s role in the project, which dates back to May 2010, when the city entered into an agreement to sell the land.

In April, the City Council voted to increase the height limit for the first tower from 125 feet to 165 feet.

Mitchell said the project is not receiving any tax breaks. Federated Cos. will receive $9 million in federal funds, which the city will repay, to build a parking garage, which could free up more land for development.

Board members asked city attorney Jennifer Thompson how the project would be affected by a Superior Court ruling on Dec. 31 that overturned the City Council’s decision to allow offices in a historic church in the West End.

Thompson said the finding that the development wouldn’t conform to the city’s comprehensive plan may have some bearing on midtown. But she noted that the decision doesn’t set a precedent until the Maine Supreme Judicial Court rules. That will happen only if the city appeals the ruling, which it hasn’t decided to do yet.

(Continued on page 2)

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