SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland Housing Authority says it’s working with Thornton Heights residents to develop an apartment building with first-floor retail space on the site of the former St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church on Route 1.

But a leader of neighborhood opposition says residents will fight the project if it looks anything like preliminary proposals the authority has shown them in recent weeks.

The authority has held two recent meetings with neighbors of the 2-acre property at 611 Main St., and it plans to hold one more on Feb. 6 before presenting a proposal to the City Council in a workshop on Feb. 13. The building would include market-rate and rent-restricted apartments affordable to a mix of incomes, according to a memo to the council.

The authority, which isn’t part of city government, is trying a different tack after proposals for two other apartment complexes ran aground last spring when faced with strong opposition from neighbors and councilors.

“We’re really trying to do what’s best for the neighborhood,” Mike Hulsey, executive director of the authority, said Tuesday. “We’re listening to what the neighborhood says. We want to become part of the neighborhood.”

Hulsey said the project at Main Street and Thirlmere Avenue would dovetail with the city’s efforts to increase economic development and improve the appearance of the Route 1 corridor through the Thornton Heights neighborhood with new sidewalks, streetlights and plantings in the median.

THREE NEIGHBORHOOD MEETINGS

Following an initial meeting with Thornton Heights residents in December, the authority developed a few building options for the Main Street site. The property has been on the market for more than four years, since the church closed in September 2013 and the parish merged with Holy Cross Church on Cottage Road.

Initial proposals included the possibility that the Port City Baptist Church, 867 Congress St., Portland, would occupy the church building.

A newer proposal, which Hulsey said was based on feedback from neighbors who attended the second meeting, would replace the church with a multi-story building located entirely along Main Street with parking behind.

Hulsey said neighbors expressed an interest in eliminating the church, which fronts on Main Street, as well as an L-shaped building that would have started on Main Street and extended behind the church.

Without the church, Hulsey said, the building would run along Main Street and have ground-level storefronts for uses such as a local market, coffee shop or sidewalk cafe.

Hulsey said the newest design isn’t finished and will be presented to neighbors next week. He declined to describe the number of apartments or other features.

“We’re in the middle of a process,” Hulsey said. “We’re not quite there yet.”

Joyce Mendoza, a Thirlmere Avenue resident who helped to organize neighbors for the first meeting, said she doubts the authority can pitch a proposal for the church site that will satisfy the neighborhood.

She said authority staff members at the last meeting said they needed 45 apartments and a zoning amendment to make the project viable.

“They have inadequate plans to account for the density of the project and the parking and traffic it would generate,” Mendoza said. “This is not going to fly with the neighborhood.”

PROPERTY UNDER CONTRACT

The authority has a contract to buy the Main Street property, which is listed with NAI The Dunham Group for $1.2 million. It includes the 6,519-square-foot church building, a 8,176-square-foot school building, a 4,504-square-foot Colonial-style house, and a large paved parking lot. Located near a highway connector to Interstate 295 and the Maine Turnpike, it’s zoned for residential and community uses.

Hulsey said several other developers have been interested in the property, but they haven’t been able to make the numbers work because of the site’s relatively high price for a housing project.

“They can’t make a profit on it,” Hulsey said. “Because we’re a nonprofit, we’re not profit-motivated. We’re essentially going to be buying the property and donating it to the project. We’re not going to make a profit on this.”

Last spring, the authority pitched two housing proposals – in the Knightville and Thornton Heights neighborhoods – that would have added more than 100 apartments to the city’s tight rental market. Neither the 48-unit proposal on Ocean Street nor the 28-unit proposal for Sunset Avenue made it out of the planning stage. Neighbors raised concerns about the size of both projects and their impacts on traffic, parking, pedestrian safety and overall quality of life.