November 29, 2010

'Stalled projects' tied to India Street blight

Residents, officials and developers debate how to deal with empty lots left by plans that lost funding.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - The recession littered more than just the financial landscape, residents and property owners around India Street say -- it also left a mess in their neighborhood.

"There's a lot of sort-of stalled projects," said Joe Malone, a commercial real estate broker who owns several commercial and residential buildings in the neighborhood, which borders the eastern waterfront between the Old Port and Munjoy Hill. "It's kind of bombed out, and if you're a property owner, that doesn't really help you."

Malone said the financial crisis hit at precisely the wrong time for the neighborhood, where a number of high-profile hotel and condominium projects had been approved by city officials.

Most of the buildings that the new structures were replacing had been torn down, he said, but banks withdrew lending or developers put projects on hold when the recession started, before any construction could take place.

Malone said most of the vacant lots have been fenced off, and property owners have generally been responsive when neighborhood residents have asked them to clean up any trash that's been dumped. But he said they remain eyesores.

Malone said the residents and property owners have banded together and are in the initial phases of an effort to get a handle on the situation.

He would like to see property owners be allowed to convert the empty lots to parking lots, at least temporarily, but he said it costs at least $15,000 to get city approval for a change of use.

Reducing that cost and speeding up the approval process could help, Malone said.

"We're hoping to work with the city on an interim basis," he said. "I think the market will take care of itself when the economy comes back."

For resident Hugh Nazor, the neighborhood's condition reflects the city's haphazard approach to planning in the area. Many of the projects were approved under contract zoning, which focuses mostly on the property itself, without enough regard for the overall zoning of the area, he said.

"It's a little frustrating," Nazor said. "They have absolutely no plan for the area or that part of the city."

Nazor said he thinks city officials were too attracted by the prospect of development and not concerned enough about the impact on the rest of the neighborhood when they reviewed proposals.

"Rather than planning what they want and sticking to it, they wait until someone comes along (with a project) and they start drooling over it and they can't say no," he said.

That approach was underscored by the hopscotch positioning of vacant lots left by unfinished projects, Nazor said.

Nazor said he likes the idea of using some of the vacant lots for parking because he said longer-term on-street spaces are taken by people employed in the area, leaving neighborhood residents to search for spaces during the day.

City Councilor Kevin Donoghue said he wants to work with residents and property owners around India Street, but he said several of the suggested solutions he's heard would make problems worse.

For instance, he said if chain-link fences were removed from vacant lots, they would soon become dumping grounds for garbage. As for parking, he said surface lots tend to discourage more substantial development, and there's a privately owned garage near the Ocean Gateway terminal to which the city could owe money if not enough spaces are occupied.

When the garage was built, he said, the owners wanted a 500-space structure. The city encouraged the owners to add 200 spaces and said it would make payments if the occupancy fell below certain levels.

Although the garage's occupancy has remained above those levels, Donoghue said, more surface lots -- which are often less expensive than garages -- could cause occupancy to fall, leaving the city with a bill from the garage's owners.

In the meantime, Donoghue said, he will try to get more money steered to the area to complete sidewalks to help give the neighborhood a more finished look until the economy picks up.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

 

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