November 14, 2012

Portland panel supports landmark status for Clifford school

Officials considering redevelopment ideas for the property want the city to have a say in any exterior renovations.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – A task force is recommending that Portland preserve the historic features of the 103-year-old Nathan Clifford Elementary School by listing it as a local historical landmark.

click image to enlarge

The former Nathan Clifford Elementary School

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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That designation would give the city's Historic Preservation Board authority to review any exterior renovations once the city sells the vacant property, possibly by the end of next year.

The suggestion is in a report, drafted by the 16-member task force, that will be presented to the City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in Room 209 of City Hall.

The task force also asks the city to assess the building's current condition, said Councilor Edward Suslovic, who serves on the task force and the council committee. The 44,000-square-foot school closed in February 2011, after the Ocean Avenue Elementary School opened to replace it.

The assessment would give prospective developers an idea about any immediate needs, such as stabilization, roof replacement or masonry work. Suslovic said he hopes the committee will approve the group's recommendation.

"The clock is ticking," Suslovic said. "The longer that building sits open -- it's not good for the building, it's not good for the neighborhood, it's not good for the city."

The school opened in 1909, named for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Nathan Clifford. The building has a 500-seat auditorium, 16 classrooms, a gymnasium in its basement, and fireplaces in the principal's office and teacher's room.

The city took ownership of the building after it closed. In June, the council appointed the task force to study options for re-use.

The group, which has met four times since September, recommends that the city encourage redevelopment proposals for educational and research institutions; community uses; open space and play features; residential uses at a density generally consistent with the zone; low-impact, low-traffic commercial; and a creative mix of uses.

The group recommends discouraging high-traffic nonresidential uses; transient housing such as hotels or hostels; or high-density residential uses.

Senior City Planner William Needelman said the school, which is on more than 1.5 acres, could hold about 22 residential units.

Task force Chairwoman Caroline Paras said the group was open to the possibility of allowing uses that are now prohibited by the zoning, such as artist live/work spaces, cafes and research institutions, if those uses are compatible with the neighborhood.

That flexibility, Paras said, is designed to increase the financial feasibility of redeveloping the school.

"We're talking a multimillion-dollar project," said Paras. "We don't know whether the math works. That's why we left the door open for developers to propose either zoning changes, or some limited range of commercial uses or density increases to make the math work."

Paras said the building is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, so the task force recommends that any developer seek that designation to take advantage of state and federal tax credits.

A draft time line approved by the task force calls for the city to receive the qualifications of prospective developers in April and receive final development proposals from no more than three developers in July. That would position the city to sell the property by November 2013.

Paras said she is excited to see what creative ideas developers will propose.

"I'm excited to see what the next stage of the process brings," she said. "This is just one phase of the building's journey. We hope the building will continue to stand and have new life."

 

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

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

 

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