The Portland City Council approved a rezoning measure Monday night for a large senior housing development on the grounds of the historic Sisters of Mercy Convent on Stevens Avenue, ending a dispute between neighbors and the developers over the scale of the project.

The council’s 9-0 vote will allow Sea Coast Management to build a total of 249 units of senior housing, about 85 fewer than it had proposed.

“We heard loud and clear that compromise was a good thing,” said Kevin Bunker of the Developers Collaborative, a partner in the project. “I’m happy with it.”

The deal for a smaller development was struck between Sea Coast and neighborhood organizers after a June 16 vote by the council on the zoning change yielded a 4-4 tie, with one councilor absent.

Jacqueline Kieslich, the New England regional president of the Sisters of Mercy, thanked the public and the council for working together to resolve the dispute, which will allow her order to sell the property and use the proceeds to continue its work.

“Our numbers are getting smaller,” Kieslich said. “I thank the council and the citizens of Portland who have participated in this debate to help us maintain our mission into the future.”

In a sharp turnaround of public opinion, nearly every person who spoke during a brief public comment period Monday night was in support of the compromise. The only voice in opposition was from a resident who said the developer should build more units.

Mark Reilly lamented the lack of housing in Portland and the skyrocketing rents, saying once again a developer has had to change plans because residents were wary of change in their backyard.

“Portland is in desperate need for housing of all types,” Reilly said. “I guess something is better than nothing.”

Preliminary plans call for renovating the stately brick “Mother House,” which was built in 1908, and for the construction of new buildings as high as seven or eight stories on a rear portion of the 12-acre property.

The plan includes 66 affordable units.

Situated across from Evergreen Cemetery and next to Baxter Woods, the Sisters of Mercy property also is home to Catherine McAuley High School.

The school has endorsed the plan, and said it intends to remain at the site for at least 25 years, although it is unclear whether McAuley sports teams will retain a regulation-sized field given the site of the development.

When it was first proposed, residents of the Deering Center neighborhood rallied against the development, and turned out dozens of people to speak before the Portland Planning Board at several meetings.

The residents were concerned about parking, traffic, public safety and quality of life.

Some residents said that Stevens Avenue, already a bustling enclave packed cheek to jowl with Deering High School, the University of New England and businesses, would be overwhelmed by senior drivers, who might cause more accidents.

Others complained about a possible influx of late-night calls for service from ambulances responding to calls for distress from elderly residents.

But the developers said there will be several opportunities in the future for the public to continue to give input to shape the project.

 


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