A proposal to build a modern-looking performance center seating 400 people on Munjoy Hill cleared a major hurdle Monday when the Portland City Council unanimously approved a conditional zoning agreement.

The agreement allows the nonprofit Friends of the St. Lawrence Arts Center to move forward with their plan to build a 54-foot-tall building at 76 Congress St. without providing off-street parking.

The project has been controversial, not only because of the parking, but because the contemporary-designed hall would be connected to an old stone parish hall that was once part of the St. Lawrence Church.

But only 10 people addressed the council during a public hearing before the vote. Most said they support the project, even though they acknowledged it would make it more difficult to find parking on the hill.

Jonathan Radke asked the council to “find a way to say yes” based on the Friends group’s commitment to help revitalize what was once a blighted neighborhood. He said change is difficult, especially on the hill, but that parking concerns shouldn’t stop progress.

“If you take parking into account with everything, you kill a city,” Radtke said. “There are those places (with large parking lots). They’re called the mall.”


The Friends have agreed to pay $70,000 a year to improve bus service along Congress Street to Munjoy Hill. A $5 fee will be added to ticket prices to pay for the bus funding.

Greg Jordan, director of the Portland Metro bus system, said the yearly contribution, plus other route changes, will allow bus frequency on the route to increase from one every 45 minutes to one every 20 to 30 minutes.

But critics said city officials are making a mistake if they are counting on people, including those from outside the city, to leave their vehicles at home or park in downtown garages and take a bus to the hall.

“The end of car culture is not yet here, folks,” said hill resident Ralph Carmona.

Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who represents the hill, said the council approved a project of similar scale years ago that didn’t include a traffic-management plan. The latest proposal simply changes the hall’s design and adopts a traffic plan.

While some have said Friends should provide shuttle service to private lots, Donoghue said this agreement addresses the greater transportation needs of the entire neighborhood, not just the performance center.


“All of Munjoy Hill has transportation demands that need to be met,” he said. “It’s about providing choice to the patrons and the neighborhood.”

Other councilors supported the agreement, with reservations.

Councilor David Brenerman spent his first 30 years living on Munjoy Hill. He and his wife are Good Theater season ticket holders and are often the youngest people in the crowd, he said.

“Most of the people there are not going to take the bus. They’re not going to ride their bikes,” Brenerman said. “(But) I think the project is so good, it will overcome these problems.”

He added, “I suspect we will be hearing about how difficult it is to find parking on Munjoy Hill to see a show.”

Deirdre Nice, executive director of the Friends group, said council approval is a big step forward for the project, which still must be reviewed by the planning and historic preservation boards.


“It’s wonderful,” she said of the council vote.

The Friends must raise the estimated $6 million to $7 million to build the theater. The new facility could open in late 2016 or early 2017, Nice has said.

The Friends originally planned to rebuild a Gothic-style church sanctuary and bell tower, but the project was too costly.

The new performance hall would include a glass-walled promenade room on top of the new building. Those facilities would be connected to the venue’s existing 120-seat parish house.

Also Monday, the council:

Granted Waterfront Concerts permission to book a season’s worth of concerts on the Maine State Pier. The Bangor-based company put on five shows last year, including a reggae festival. The new deal will allow the promoter to reserve and confirm dates with city staff, rather than seek special permits from the council. No information was available about the number of shows being planned for 2015.


Approved a rezoning request that will allow Portland developer Redfern Properties to construct a four-story, mixed-use building at 89 Anderson St., where 3G’s Tire and Auto Service is currently located. The building would have commercial uses on the first floor and 53 mid-level apartments.

Approved $30,000 in land bank funds to purchase and preserve Ice Pond on Peaks Island.

Approved a $15,500 contract with Municipal Resources, Inc., of Meredith, N.H., to conduct a nationwide search for a city manager.

Approved a new, 40-plot community garden on the Eastern Promenade. The new garden would be located behind the tennis courts and help ease the 135-person waiting list at the city’s seven other community gardens, which have a total of 264 plots.

This story was updated at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 16 to correct the name of the director of the Portland Metro bus system.

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