SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors expressed mixed feelings Tuesday evening over a proposal to construct a 42-unit apartment building on the site of the former St. John the Evangelist Church on Main Street.

The South Portland Housing Authority pitched the four-story building, including ground-level retail space, as a way to provide much-needed affordable housing and reduce its 140-household waiting list for subsidized apartments.

Councilors said they were torn between the benefits offered by the Route 1 proposal and the problems it might bring to the surrounding Thornton Heights neighborhood, including increased traffic and parking.

Several councilors suggested the project would be more palatable if it were scaled down, closer to the 22 apartments allowed under current zoning, though authority officials said a smaller project wouldn’t be financially feasible.

“We definitely need affordable housing,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “I cannot support this scale.”

Councilor Susan Henderson said, “I do support the project. I think we have to tame the traffic.”

Councilor Adrian Dowling called it “a good project for this street and this area.”

A majority of the council asked that the Planning Board review the authority’s concept proposal for 611 Main St. and provide recommendations to address anticipated problems.

The authority met with the council to gauge potential support before developing a formal proposal, seeking a zoning change and applying for funding through the Maine State Housing Authority. It held three previous neighborhood meetings in an effort to gain input and support from Thornton Heights residents.

Again at Tuesday’s council workshop, neighbors were divided.

“This development doesn’t fit our neighborhood,” said Martha Martenson of Thirlmere Avenue, one of several people who raised concerns about traffic, parking and the loss of neighborhood character.

“We need affordable housing and we need it in all the neighborhoods, including the one we’re in,” said Meg Johnson of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The authority, which isn’t part of city government, 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.

To address neighbors’ concerns, the project’s 85-space parking lot would provide 16 more spaces than required under current zoning and the lot would be screened by attractive fencing, said Brooks More, the authority’s development director.

The building would include one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments targeting households making $28,750 to $49,260, More said. Thirty-three units would be rented at subsidized rates of $770 to $1,281, depending on family size and income, and nine units would be rented at market rates.

The authority also plans to sell three house lots on the back half of the property, More said. Ground-level storefronts would house a local market, coffee shop or sidewalk cafe.

More noted that the project would be significantly smaller than the 64-unit West End Apartments the council recently approved for Avesta Housing on a 1-acre lot at 586 Westbrook St.

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.

The church 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.

Several councilors remarked that if the same housing project were proposed to replace a nearby motel with troublesome clientele, they would support it whole-heartedly.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KelleyBouchard