PORTLAND — New renderings of proposed performance space at St. Lawrence Arts are playing to mixed reviews about a month before the City Council will consider a zoning change to make the project possible.

“If you look at how design has evolved, you can see it effectively balances being a focal point and cultural center while at the same time fitting into its context successfully,” City Historic Preservation Program Director Deb Andrews said Monday.

Her comments came after a Nov. 5 Historic Preservation Board meeting to review the new drawings by architect David Lloyd for the 400-seat performance space at 76 Congress St., to be built over the empty lot where the St. Lawrence Church sanctuary stood until 2008.

The performing arts center would replace a sanctuary torn down in 2008 because it was “structurally dangerous,” Andrews said.

She said initial plans to rebuild on the site called for a design and materials that may have been more in keeping with the parish house, but proved to be cost prohibitive. The Historic Preservation Board will review the plans to ensure the arts center remains in keeping with the parish hall (where performances now occur) and its surroundings.

Deirdre Nice, St. Lawrence Arts executive and artistic director, said Monday the new drawings for what could be a $7 million venue illustrate consideration for the neighborhood and the historic setting.

“We are pleased with their evolution and the direction they are taking, as is the (Historic Preservation Board),” she said.

The Nov. 5 meeting was the first board discussion of St. Lawrence plans since May 2013. On Oct. 28, the city Planning Board gave a favorable recommendation to amendments to the conditional zone covering church property needed to allow the project to progress.

A first City Council reading of the zoning changes is tentatively scheduled for mid-December, meaning the final vote would occur in January 2015.

Plans were revised to incorporate more stone surfaces along Congress and Munjoy streets; reduce the building height on Munjoy Street to better conform with an adjacent residence; reduce the height of the building entrance, and to indicate where signs will be placed.

In a cover letter to the Historic Preservation Board, Andrews said the changes reflect feedback Lloyd and the Friends of St. Lawrence received at the May 2013 workshop.

Munjoy Hill residents Ralph Carmona and Ross Fields, longtime opponents of the project, said Monday the latest proposal is an improvement over prior plans, but both doubted the performing arts center will ever truly fit the neighborhood.

“It is basically a structure that is taller than (adjacent buildings at) 118 Congress, (and) when you look up from Eastern Promenade, it looks even taller,” Carmona said.

Fields said he is concerned the performing arts center is still getting placed into a more residential setting, and suggested historic preservation may not be an issue.

“There’s nothing to preserve,” he said. “We are talking about a new building.”

Fields, a fan of the mixed commercial and residential uses found along Congress Street, said there is still a distinction found along the street.

“Most of those are in buildings that maintain the integrity of the neighborhood,” he said.

Nice said the estimated cost is $10 million less than originally proposed, and a capital campaign for funding depends on the City Council zoning vote.

If the zoning amendment is approved, the Friends of the St. Lawrence will need to re-approach the Planning Board and Historic Preservation Committee for final site and design approval, Andrews said.

Nice said they are hoping to break ground in 2016 for an opening in early 2017, but Carmona and Fields said larger issues are still unresolved, including regarding parking at the proposed venue.

Questions about parking will be part of the Planning Board process, Andrews said.

The Friends have offered to donate $70,000 to ensure adequate bus service to shows, money to be raised through an added ticket fee. Carmona remained skeptical that people attending shows would use buses, especially if they come from outside the city.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements

The Friends of St. Lawrence hope to construct a 400-seat performing arts center at the corner of Congress and Munjoy streets in Portland, to be completed by early 2017. The project requires a City Council zoning change, and approval by the Planning and Historic Preservation boards.

A revised rendering by architect David Lloyd for the proposed performing arts center on the site of the former St. Lawrence Church sanctuary reduces the scale of the building. But some neighbors are unconvinced it fits into the residential area at Congress and Munjoy streets in Portland.

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