The Portland City Council on Monday will hold a second public hearing about a proposal to rezone 7 acres of land on outer Congress Street owned by the Elks Lodge to allow for office uses.

The proposal, which could also be voted on by the council, is drawing strong opposition from some neighbors, who believe an office park would not fit in with the Stroudwater Historic District. They are also concerned that such a move would remove land zoned for residential uses at a time when new housing is desperately needed.

“To erect a multistory office building only a few yards inside Congress Street would constitute the very worst kind of visual pollution,” Roger Hinchliffe of the Stroudwater Neighborhood Association said in a letter to the mayor. “If anything (it) so clearly symbolizes why Stroudwater opposes this tasteless, redundant rezoning in an area of chronic medical office vacancies.”

Proponents, however, argue that the land is not well-suited for residential development because it is near the Portland International Jetport and abuts the Unum corporate offices. Other hurdles would also have to be overcome to build housing on the site.

The “purchase price was too high to make residential work,” said Josh Benthien of Northland Enterprises. “If they sold it for a couple hundred grand, that might work.”

‘IN A TOUGH PLACE’

For years, the Elks have been trying to sell their headquarters at 1945 Congress St. Benthien said he has the property under contract for $1.25 million, which is half of the original asking price. While the site is bordered on two sides by zoning that allows office parks, land to the south and east is zoned residential and home to single-family houses. The plan includes a 40-foot buffer to the east, to provide separation from existing neighbors.

Benthien said the lower price reflects the fact that the Elks will continue to maintain their headquarters on the site, along with two additional office buildings – one for Clark Insurance and a medical building. If a residential project were pursued, the Elks would have to leave and find a new headquarters, he said.

“They’re in a tough place,” Benthien said. “They know they can’t sell it as a residential property anymore and get enough money to survive.”

Hinchliffe said he conducted a survey of about 60 residents in the Stroudwater Village area, which roughly spans from the West Gate Shopping Center to the jetport, and 90 percent opposed the rezoning.

He claims that another developer has drafted economically viable plans for 32 townhouses, though he declined to name the developer.

An emotional neighborhood meeting was held at the Elks Club last week, but no compromise was reached, according to people who attended. However, it became clear that neighbors were very concerned about placing a building along Congress Street.

Benthien said he considers that a step forward. The location of the buildings is something that could be addressed during the Planning Board’s site plan review process, which would follow any rezoning action, he said.

Hinchliffe has been lobbying Mayor Ethan Strimling to persuade city councilors to oppose the zone change, since the mayor’s top priority is to address the city’s housing shortage, which is driving up rents and pricing out middle class earners.

SINGLE-FAMILY HOMES ONLY

Strimling said he is still listening to both sides, which have “very legitimate points.”

“My concern is the neighborhood is so concerned about it, so I’m trying to understand why those concerns are there,” Strimling said. “When we change a zone, that’s a big deal. It’s very important to me that neighborhoods get listened to.”

Jeff Levine, the city’s planning and urban development director, said the current R-2 residential zone permits only single-family homes. That would allow the construction of eight to 25 homes, depending on other conditions, including whether Unum Park Drive is accepted as a public road.

“Most likely the number of lots would be on the lower end of that range,” Levine said.

City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who represents the district, said he supports the rezoning, because it is good for the city as a whole, since it expands the tax base, and would not negatively impact the neighborhood. He noted that there was no opposition to a 2012 council action that changed the zoning to allow Husson University to establish a campus at the site – a project that never moved forward. The proposed office zone would require more oversight, including the submission of a master plan for the entire site, he said.

“I have yet to be convinced that this project will be bad for the neighborhood,” Suslovic said. “I don’t think this property is well-suited for housing.”

Hinchliffe said some residents feel betrayed by Suslovic.

“We see ourselves being screwed over by this guy and we’re not going to stand for it,” he said. “He’s sly. He’s going in the face of what we want. He’s ignoring the urgent housing needs of Portland.”

The City Council is scheduled to take up the zoning issue at 7 p.m. and allow for public comment.