Wednesday, April 23, 2014
PORTLAND — A zoning change for a vacant parcel on west Commercial Street will let J.B. Brown & Sons begin marketing the site for development immediately, a company official said Wednesday after the City Council approved the change.
Portland officials say the parcel is at a gateway to the city, between the Star Match Co. building and the on-ramp to the Veterans Memorial Bridge-Fore River Parkway interchange.
With the zoning change, the parcel can now be for residential, business or retail uses, rather than water-dependent industrial uses. But how it is developed will depend on the demands of the market.
Company President Vin Veroneau said his company won't build on speculation. "It will be user-driven."
Veroneau spoke after the City Council voted unanimously to change a 6-acre portion of the 10.5-acre parcel from an industrial, water-dependent zone to a less restrictive business zone.
The company had reached a compromise with a group of Danforth Street residents over the building height limit for the parcel.
The developer initially wanted the limit to be 65 feet -- the standard in the business zone -- but agreed to 55 feet between the Star Match Co. building and the section of the parcel that is in line with Fletcher Street, and agreed to 45 feet for the portion of the parcel east of Fletcher Street.
The compromise shows how the Planning Board can work with residents to improve a project, board Chair Carol Morrissette told the council.
Residents on Danforth Street, fearing that a 65-foot-tall building would block their views of the Fore River, wanted a much lower building height limit. But they are pleased with the outcome because they understand that a "compromise is in order in a situation like this," said Peter Plumb, an attorney representing a group of those residents.
However, the residents agreed to the compromise only because they were "terrified" that the Planning Board would allow a 65-foot height limit, said Jo Coyne, who lives on nearby Salem Street.
Steven Scharf of High Street offered an entirely different view. He told the council that lower height limits simply encourage suburban-style development, and that the city should foster construction of bigger and taller buildings.
"We shouldn't be pussy-footing around with 45-foot height limits," he said. "My suggestion is to go big or go home."
A 55-foot limit would allow a five-story building. A 45-foot limit would allow a four-story building and possibly a five-story building, city planners said.
Building heights are controversial in Portland, particularly in places with views of the water. City Councilor Kevin Donoghue said he wonders if Wednesday's decision set a precedent for building heights along Portland's eastern waterfront, where the limit is now 65 feet.
J.B. Brown & Sons bought the parcel on Commercial Street in November. It has owned the Star Match Co. building since 1974.
J.B. Brown & Sons was started in 1828 by John Bundy Brown, the legendary entrepreneur who developed much of Congress Street, the waterfront and the West End.
Over the past three decades, the family-owned company has divested itself of residential properties in the West End and added properties on the city's perimeter and in the Maine Mall area of South Portland.
The company is one of the largest property owners in Greater Portland, with six office buildings, nine warehouses and seven mix-used properties.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: