Portland city councilors have zeroed in on three potential sites for a new homeless shelter.

A City Council subcommittee on Tuesday whittled down a list of a dozen potential sites and asked city staff to look deeper at the three remaining options before the next meeting, on March 19. The meeting included a heated exchange between two councilors over a potential shelter site in Bayside that was ultimately removed from the list of possible locations.

“We have made some progress and I’m feeling good about it,” said City Councilor Belinda Ray, who leads the three-member Health & Human Services and Public Safety Committee.

Sites still under consideration are a 10-acre piece of state-owned land on County Way next to the Cumberland County Jail, a city-owned gravel parking lot near the Casco Bay Bridge known as Angelo’s Acre, and city-owned land in the Riverside Industrial Park at 654 Riverside St. near the Westbrook border.

“I think, based on the analysis you went through tonight, you’ve got it down to three viable sites,” said Jeff Levine, the city’s urban planning and development director.

Ray and Councilor Pious Ali expressed support for eliminating Angelo’s Acre as a potential location, because of safety concerns stemming from its proximity to the waterfront. They were also concerned that the facility would need to be built close to western Commercial Street. But the panel kept the parcel on the list after Councilor Brian Batson said he wanted more information.

TENSION OVER BAYSIDE SITE

The committee unanimously eliminated eight sites because of the need to either change zoning or negotiate with private landowners to accommodate a shelter. The only site to be removed with a split vote was 33 Portland St. – a Bayside neighborhood location that prompted several sharp exchanges between Ray and Batson.

After stating his opposition to locating a shelter in a residential neighborhood, Batson pushed for the committee to keep the Portland Street property in play because it was mostly zoned for business uses. However, Ray noted the parcel is located in the middle of a residential area – a notion dismissed by Batson.

“It’s not smack dab in the middle of the neighborhood,” Batson said.

According to a staff analysis, nearly 35 percent of the uses within a 500-foot radius of the location are residential.

“To call this not residential when it is highly residential is not a good assessment of the site,” Ray said. “I don’t think we can disagree. This is surrounded by residences. That’s a fact.”

Batson said the location has a lot of benefits, including being located on the peninsula and near social service providers, open spaces and area businesses.

But Rob Parritt, former director of the city-run Oxford Street Shelter, reminded the committee that breaking up the concentration of social services in Bayside is one of the goals of the shelter project. Parritt said he would have “concerns at a pretty substantial level” about building a shelter at 33 Portland St., which is a few blocks from the existing shelter that the city wants to replace.

Residents and city officials have worried about an increase in unwanted behavior, including open drug use and disorderly conduct, as well as the presence of drug dealers and others who prey on the people who use the services.

“I think staff have been pretty consistent from the beginning of this process almost two years ago that one of the goals is to break up the overwhelmingly congested area of social service agencies and providers that really traps people in a two-block radius,” said Parritt, who continues to work on the project as a consultant. “That’s not healthy for anybody.”

The committee voted 2-1 to eliminate the location, with Batson opposed. Batson apologized at the end of the meeting for “getting heated” during the debate.

But Ray thought nothing of it, saying “If you were heated, then I was heated plus.”

GATHERING INFORMATION

At the subcommittee’s meeting on March 19, staff will bring back additional information about each remaining site, including feedback from social service providers, the city’s Health and Human Services Department and Homeless Voices for Justice, an advocacy program overseen by the nonprofit Preble Street. A public hearing could be held as soon as March 26, Ray said.

Levine said councilors still face a difficult decision.

“We can bring back more info,” Levine said. “I just don’t want you to assume that it will make this decision immediately obvious.”

The County Way site seems to have the most potential, especially given that a majority of the committee voiced opposition to the Angelo’s Acre. Located in the Libbytown neighborhood off Congress Street, it is near the downtown area and has access to frequent public transportation, factors that have been identified as important criteria.

The site is currently owned by the state, although city officials have been discussing a possible land swap with the Maine Department of Transportation.

The city wants to replace the Oxford Street Shelter, which has been in Bayside for more than 30 years. The shelter regularly exceeds its 154-person capacity, so the city sets up one or more overflow shelters, including 75 mats at the Preble Street Resource Center. The converted apartment building and auto garage, which the city leases, lacks sufficient space for beds – people sleep on thin mats lined up on the floor – and for meeting with clients.

Last summer, city officials recommended building a new shelter for about 200 homeless adults on land at the city-owned Barron Center on outer Brighton Avenue. But officials dropped that plan after it was fiercely opposed by residents of Nason’s Corner.

Now the city is looking for locations to build a slightly smaller shelter – 150 beds – with an on-site soup kitchen, medical clinic and other areas for on-site counseling. The bed count was reduced after several nonprofits expressed interest in partnering with the city to open specialty facilities for women, seniors and those struggling with mental illness.

Staff identified about 650 city-owned parcels larger than 10,000 square feet for a new city-run shelter. That list dropped to about 30 sites after parks, cemeteries, wetland and protected lands, among others, were eliminated. Staff whittled that list down to 14 sites and the committee last month reduced that list to 11.

Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:

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