March 3, 2012

Our View: More work needed on West End church plan

Losing the Williston-West Church would be too high a price to pay for a zoning dispute.

West End neighbors should consider a tale of two churches: On the East End, there is the St. Lawrence, or more accurately, was the St. Lawrence. The 1897 structure was razed after many years without a congregation to take care of it. The adjacent parish house has been turned into a well-used theater, and the Friends of St. Lawrence are working tirelessly to raise the money to rebuild it, but for now, it is a pile of rubble.

click image to enlarge

Paul Stevens, a great-grandson of architect John Calvin Stevens, talks about the historic features of the Williston-West Church on Thomas Street in Portland. A prominent Australian businessman is seeking a zoning change to permit offices at the church’s attached parish house.

Press Herald file photo/John Patriquin

On the West End, we have the Williston-West Church, another classic former house of worship that no longer has a congregation to support it. But it has an owner, Australian businessman Frank Monsour, who wants to convert the parish hall into offices generating enough money to renovate and maintain the church, which could be used as a public gathering space.

Unfortunately, Monsour bought property in a residential zone, and the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association is pushing for the city to deny his permit. Some say they would accept a residential reuse, but not any commercial activity.

The city could deny Monsour's plan and see what happens. Maybe he would come back with a different idea, or maybe he would do nothing and maybe Williston-West would face the fate of the St. Lawrence. There are seven empty churches for sale in Maine right now, and they are not attracting buyers.

That approach seems too risky. The city could come up with a better result if Monsour and the neighbors worked together to reach a compromise. They could preserve the character of the neighborhood and a historic landmark.

There's precedent for this kind of discussion, and West Enders don't even need to go across town to know about it. Just last week, developers and neighbors presented a rezoning proposal for West Commercial Street that will allow construction of office buildings while preserving their uphill neighbors' views of the harbor. It was a much better result than could have been reached in a winner-take-all, up-or-down decision.

The neighbors have more to gain from investment in the Williston-West Church than they would from letting him walk away. It's in everyone's interests for the parties to keep talking.

 

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