One of Portland’s oldest taverns appears to have survived an existential threat, at least for the next year. Forest Gardens has signed a yearlong lease, beginning July 1, to stay in the humble Forest Avenue storefront where it has operated for 80 years and built up a large and loyal following. The new lease comes after the CVS pharmacy chain backed away from plans to buy and demolish several historic buildings for a new store.

The low-key tavern is a local institution, located near the University of Southern Maine and known as a gathering place and refuge for Oakdale and Back Cove neighborhood residents.

News of the one-year lease drew cheers on the “Save Forest Gardens” Facebook page, which was created to help organize rallies and mobilize opposition to the CVS proposal. “The LEGEND continues!!” one fan wrote on the page when the news was first posted last week.

While Forest Gardens appears to have dodged the wrecking ball this time, the long-term future of the tavern remains uncertain.

City officials said the pharmacy chain pulled out after the city undertook two separate efforts to restrict redevelopment of the area in a way that would have prevented CVS from demolishing the buildings to create a suburban-style big box store. However, those efforts are in limbo now that CVS has dropped the project.

“We’re definitely happy about the lease,” said David Read, a 45-year-old Portland native who helped lead an effort to save the bar. “We’re still anxious to see what will come out of the council regarding the rezoning and the landmarks status.”


Earlier this year, an attorney representing CVS informed the city that the company wanted to purchase 1.3 acres and demolish 371 Forest Ave. and four other buildings for a new pharmacy. Public reaction against a suburban-style pharmacy replacing buildings that have historical significance was swift and strong from patrons, preservationists, longtime residents and the development community alike.

Most of the land is owned by David Weeks, who owns Palmer Spring Co. Weeks responded to requests for comment with a short email that leaves open the possibility that CVS may still purchase his land.

“If CVS doesn’t purchase our property, Palmer Spring Company will remain and operate at our current location on Forest Avenue,” Weeks said. “If we sell our property at any time in the future, Palmer Spring Company will relocate and operate our company at another location in Portland.”

The city’s Historic Preservation Board unanimously voted that some of the buildings, including the one occupied by the tavern, were eligible for landmark status, which would make it virtually impossible to demolish. The buildings are part of what was known as auto row, since many of the city’s first auto dealerships were located there. Board members also highlighted the cultural significance of Forest Gardens, which was established in 1936.

The City Council then directed the Planning Board to fast-track a zone change that would prohibit drive-through windows and a single-story building with a large parking lot on Forest Avenue. That rezoning received a 6-1 recommendation from the board in March.

While the city’s steps were enough to discourage CVS, little has happened since then. No member of the historic board has formally nominated any of the buildings for landmark status – a move that would ask the City Council to enact additional protections. And the rezoning proposal has yet to be taken up by the council.


“That makes us a little nervous,” Read said.

Planning and Urban Development Director Jeff Levine said the city is taking a comprehensive look at what buildings to protect along the Forest Avenue corridor, but he noted that staff resources were scarce and there was no time line for a decision. Developers would not be able to demolish the buildings without a formal ruling on landmark status, Levine said.

City Councilor Belinda Ray sponsored the zone change that helped killed the CVS plan and is not in any hurry to move the proposal to the full council.

“It’s kind of living in limbo, where we could put it through at any time,” Ray said.

Ray said the council could always take up the rezoning, should CVS revive its plan for a suburban-style pharmacy at the site. Short of that, Ray is content to wait until the city has updated its Comprehensive Plan, so the council can rewrite the requirements for the entire zone that includes the properties. For example, the zoning rules only encourage developers to build taller, mixed-use buildings, but do not explicitly require it, she said.

Ray also is concerned that prohibiting drive-through windows would limit property owners’ ability to sell the land. Ray suggested that the city might be able to get additional concessions from developers in order for them to include a drive- through in any redevelopment, whether it’s for a pharmacy or a bank.


City Manager Jon Jennings said CVS’ development team considered working with the new zoning rules and pursuing a mixed-use development, with a pharmacy located on the ground level and apartments on the upper levels. But CVS quietly abandoned the concept around April or May, because they were concerned about a lack of parking, he said.

Sandra Guay, the attorney working with CVS, referred all questions to a company spokesperson, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Jennifer Thompson, project manager for Portland Buy Local and a critic of the CVS proposal, said the city should be proactive when it comes to redevelopment of Forest Avenue and not wait for another development proposal before updating the rules.

“Our hope is that the city will create a proactive plan to guide any development in a way that preserves the unique and independent character that has led to Portland’s economic and community growth in recent years,” Thompson said. “A carefully thought-out plan will more clearly outline proper procedures with guidelines for developers, rather than having the city react to each new development as they come in.”

Jennings said other developers are interested in the property.

“I do think there is a need for redevelopment of that area,” Jennings said. “There’s always a balance we have to strike to preserve our history where appropriate.”

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