A proposed 400-seat performance hall in the heart of Portland’s Munjoy Hill is up for final city approval Tuesday, more than five years after it was first presented to mixed reviews.

If the project is approved by the Portland Planning Board, the Friends of the St. Lawrence Church will be able to turn its attention to its next big challenge: raising the $10 million estimated to be needed to construct a contemporary addition to the 19th-century Gothic-style church at 76 Congress St., according to Julia Kirby.

“After the site plan approval process, we will truly be a shovel-ready project,” Kirby said. “We hope by showing that we’re a professional organization that has been able to tackle this project and get it to a point where it’s complete will really speak well to donors that are interested. Instead of a pipe dream, it’s a reality.”

The performance hall would be located in a 52-foot-tall addition to the stone church. The existing building has a 110-seat parish hall used for concerts and other performances that would remain intact.

The project is a significant undertaking for the friends group, a small nonprofit founded in 1996 to renovate the church. The group also sought to renovate the former sanctuary and 80-foot-tall bell tower, but had to demolish those because of structural issues.

According to recent tax filings, the nonprofit has only four employees and an annual budget of about $200,000. And it has operated at a loss since at least 2013.


Even so, Kirby said if the project is approved, the group is confident it will be able to raise the money to move the project forward.

“I think that we’re very optimistic – that’s why we’re bold enough to go through this process and make an investment into this,” she said. “We’re a small organization with a big vision and we’re working very hard.”

A site plan approval is valid for one year, but may be extended for up to three years. If the project does not get underway during that period, the friends will have to go through the planning process all over again.

The group believes that the performance hall will fill a void in the community, which has small venues that seat fewer than 200 people and larger venues that seat more than 1,000. The friends hope to provide a venue for acts such as Keb Mo, Ani Defranco, Patti Griffin and Arlo Guthrie, among others, according to the group’s website.

The hall will also include a promenade banquet room, with glass walls, on the top floor, that could be rented for corporate events to generate revenue for the nonprofit. When the room is not being rented, the friends have said the room would be available to other nonprofit and school groups, which often have trouble finding affordable space to host their own fundraisers.

The original scale and design of the proposed performance hall was not well-received when it was first unveiled in 2012. However, after a series of meetings with the city’s Historic Preservation Board, the friends were able to ease some of those concerns by breaking up its box-like design and adding granite accents, windows and some greenery to the facade.


The performance hall does not include any additional parking, which also worried residents. Instead, a conditional zoning agreement approved by the City Council in 2014 requires the group to provide $70,000 to Metro to help increase bus service on Munjoy Hill, which officials hope will encourage people to park elsewhere. That money will be raised through a $5 surcharge on tickets.

Munjoy Hill also has seen much change and redevelopment since the performance hall was first proposed. The historic, tightly packed residential neighborhood has become Portland’s hottest real estate market, with older homes and apartment buildings being replaced by modern condominiums.

Opposition has largely dissipated since the council’s zoning approval. When site plans were filed in late 2016, a member of Concerned Residents of Munjoy Hill, which formed to oppose the proposal, said the group would not likely speak against the project, partly because they did not think it would ever be funded.

Stuart O’Brien, the city’s planning director, said he has not received any public comment ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.

And Jay Norris, president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association, said he is not aware of any ongoing opposition to the project, although he knows some residents continue to be anxious about how it might affect resident parking on the hill.

Norris said he supports the project.

“Just the attempt to bring it to life is inspiring, and once it’s done and comes to life, it will be a jewel of Portland and our historic neighborhood,” Norris said.


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