Despite pleas from numerous residents of the Deering Center neighborhood, the Portland Planning Board began to clear the way Tuesday night for the construction of hundreds of units of senior housing on the site of the Sisters of Mercy convent on Stevens Avenue.

After nearly three hours of discussion and comments, the board voted 4-0 to recommend a zoning change to the City Council. One member, David Eaton, recused himself, and two other were absent from the meeting.

Also Tuesday night, the Planning Board recommended a second zoning change, for Redfern Properties, which has proposed constructing a 132-unit apartment building on the site of Joe’s Super Variety at 665 Congress St., formerly Joe’s Smoke Shop. The seven- or eight-story building would house a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments.

During a roughly two-hour public comment period on the Stevens Avenue proposal, dozens of impassioned city residents pleaded that fewer units be allowed on the 12-acre site.

“I personally think the density is too high,” said resident David Little. “On the other hand, I’d like to live there, I’d like to buy a condo there, I’d just like it to be a little more sensitive to the community.”

But Planning Board member Jack Soley said “it would be a missed opportunity if we passed on a project like this. The best way to deal with that kind of density is to continue to work with the developer.”​

The developer, Seacoast Management, requested a zoning change that would allow it to build up to about 300 housing units, more than double the number of what the current zoning allows.

The project would convert the Sisters of Mercy convent, a historic building that was completed in 1908, to several dozen units of senior and affordable housing. Catherine McAuley High School, which occupies a portion of the property and uses as playing fields much of the acreage to be developed, supports the project, and would remain at the site as a tenant for at least 25 years if construction goes forward.

Beyond the historic “Mother House,” as the convent building is known, Seacoast envisions erecting four more buildings, of about 50 units each, behind the convent.

Most residents who spoke opposed the housing project, on a variety of grounds. Many said that seniors citizens are more dangerous drivers and would endanger young children who live and play nearby.

Other residents said traffic along Stevens Avenue, already clogged by students and parents who travel to and from seven area schools – including Deering High School and the University of New England – would become untenable, with one speaker calling it “a confluence of disaster.”

But the developers insisted they would be sensitive to the neighborhood’s concerns, and that their plans would add urgently needed housing for senior citizens living in Portland.

Seacoast has built similar projects, including Oceanview at Falmouth, an upscale senior living facility.

The proposed zoning changes next go before the City Council for review and a vote.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MattByrnePPH

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