SOUTH PORTLAND — A housing authority proposal to build a 40-unit apartment building with first-floor retail space on Route 1 drew mixed reviews Tuesday evening.

About 25 residents of the Thornton Heights neighborhood turned out to see revised building designs for the site of the former St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St.

While some neighbors expressed support, others spoke emotionally about dealing with increased traffic on Thirlmere and Aspen avenues, seeing an 80-space parking lot and losing the residential character of the neighborhood.

The former St. John the Evangelist Church on Main Street in the Thornton Heights neighborhood of South Portland. Staff file photo by John Patriquin

“To me, the whole traffic thing is a catastrophe waiting to happen,” said Beth McKeen of Thirlmere Avenue. “It doesn’t work. This is a residential neighborhood. This is going to impact our daily life.”

Devin Deane, another Thirlmere Avenue resident, shared his neighbors’ concerns but offered support for a project that would address the need for affordable housing.

“I’ve tried to be open-minded,” Deane said. “There’s a real need (and) I appreciate that you guys are really trying, but I’m deferential to the people who live closer to it.”

Deane added later, “Something’s going in here and it’s going to have an impact on traffic.”

The South Portland Housing Authority has a contract to buy the two-acre property at 611 Main St., which is listed with NAI The Dunham Group for $1.2 million. It includes the church building, a school building, a Colonial-style house and a large paved parking lot.

Located near a highway connector to Interstate 295 and the Maine Turnpike, the site is zoned for residential and community uses. A Dunkin’ Donuts developer bought the property from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland for $731,025 in 2013 and tried unsuccessfully to win neighborhood and city approval to build a coffee shop.

Tuesday’s meeting was the third neighborhood gathering hosted by the authority since December, trying to build support before presenting a preliminary proposal to the City Council next Tuesday.

The authority, which isn’t part of city government, would need a zoning change to build more than 22 apartments on the front half of the property, said Brooks More, development director.

The building would include one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments – 65 percent to 80 percent of which would be subsidized through construction funding from the Maine State Housing Authority.

The rest would be rented at market rates. The local authority also plans to sell three house lots on the back half of the property.

Last spring, the authority pitched two other apartment proposals that fell apart when faced with strong opposition from neighbors and councilors. Those proposals – in the Knightville and Thornton Heights neighborhoods – 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.

Mike Hulsey, executive director of the authority, assured residents at Tuesday’s meeting that his agency wants to work with them.

“We’re pursuing anything we can to meet the needs of the neighborhood,” Hulsey said.

The project would mesh with the city’s recent efforts to increase economic development and improve the appearance of the Route 1 corridor through the Thornton Heights neighborhood, he said.

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.

While the authority’s previous designs for the site would have preserved the church building, the latest designs would replace the church with a multi-story building located entirely along Main Street with parking behind.

Ground-level storefronts would house a local market, coffee shop or sidewalk cafe.