The owner of the Maine Girls’ Academy building on Stevens Avenue is requesting a zone change in order to convert the former school into a neighborhood center with artist studios, daycare, a theater, gymnasium and fitness area/pool open to the public. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — The new owner of the former school building at 631 Stevens Ave. envisions turning it into a community hub complete with art studios and a daycare center. Under current zoning, however, that vision won’t become a reality.

Kevin Bunker of Baxter Woods LLC went before the Planning Board Oct. 8 to make his case for a zone change for the site of the former Catherine McAuley High School and, most recently, the Maine Girls’ Academy.

Bunker told the board that he also wants to make an existing gymnasium, pool and auditorium available for both residents of Stevens Square, his neighboring residential development, and the general public.

The property is in a zone that allows for single-family and multi-family residences among other non-business uses, but not the other uses Bunker would like to see there, such as a neighborhood center.

A neighborhood center by definition in the city code is a building or portion of a building 10,00 square feet or less that is “used for recreational, artistic, social, educational, health, culture, or similar activities and services, usually owned and operated by a public or nonprofit group or agency.”

“I don’t think there is any argument about what ought to happen in the building, but there is question about how to make it happen with the tools we have,” Bunker said.

He sees a Neighborhood Business Zone as a better fit.

Board members Maggie Stanley and Bob Dunfey agreed it makes sense for Bunker’s property to be zoned similar to nearby areas along the west side of Stevens Avenue from Lincoln Middle School to Pleasant Avenue and the east side from Clinton Street to Pleasant Avenue.

Board member Austin Smith said he supports Bunker’s vision, but is wary about a zone change because down the line it could lead to something that doesn’t fit in that section of Stevens Avenue.

“I trust you. I am really in line with your vision for the property, but what really concerns me is the next owner and with the zoning what they could do,” he said, adding that he would like to amend the city’s zoning to allow Bunker’s vision to go forward, without having to rezone the area.

Board member David Eaton said an amendment could have unintended consequences, however.

“There seems to be a willingness to work with you in the parameters of your vision, which seems to have some consensus, of bringing that school (building) in some sort of mixed-use neighborhood-based center,” he said.

Any rezoning of the property would need to work its way through the formal Planning Board process before being passed on to the council for approval.

Plans call for renovating the former Maine Girls’ Academy building to serve as a community space for the Stevens Square residential campus and the public. Courtesy / Developers Collaborative

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