A local developer is requesting a zoning amendment that could clear the way for the city’s tallest building and more than 260 apartments in Portland’s downtown.

If approved, Redfern Properties would be able to build an 18-story apartment building at Temple and Federal streets. Along with being taller than any existing building, it would be among the largest rental complexes in the city based on the number of units.

Current zoning allows for a 150-foot-tall building, plus an additional 40-foot architectural cap, which could cover rooftop mechanical and air-handling systems. The amendment would allow Redfern to build a 190-foot-tall building, not including rooftop equipment. The additional area would allow for several more floors of residential units, making the project financially viable, Redfern owner Jonathan Culley said.

“We wouldn’t be able to do it as a 14-story building,” Culley said, noting the high costs of construction. “This is absolutely essential.”

Redfern’s request for a zoning text and map amendment will be reviewed by the planning board, which will issue a final recommendation to the City Council. If approved, the project would still need to undergo a site plan review.

Christine Grimando, the city’s director of planning and urban development, said staff is still reviewing the proposal and no meeting dates have yet been scheduled. But she noted that housing creation is central to the city’s comprehensive plan.

“It’s really early in the process to comment on 200 Federal Street,” Grimando said in an email. “Housing creation is of course a priority of Portland’s Plan 2030, but we always look at applications for zoning changes in light of the complete document – the full comprehensive plan analysis is still to be done, but will be central to the review when it’s ready.”

The project would be located on the plaza and surface parking lots behind the U.S. Post Office at 400 Congress St., near City Hall. The project would include more than 2,000 square-feet of ground-floor retail space.

Culley said parking would be provided in the Chestnut and Temple street parking garages, although he expects the location will be attractive to people looking to ditch their automobiles.

“If you want to live this urban life – and we’re seeing it more and more with our tenants – they are living without cars and there is no more walkable location in Portland to live than this,” Culley said.

The building would contain roughly 118 studios, 146 one-bedrooms and two two-bedroom units, mostly at market rents. Rents for the “vast majority” of the units are projected to range from $1,200 to $2,000. Twenty seven units would be deed-restricted as workforce housing under the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, which means rents would have to be affordable for families making as much as 100 percent of the area median income determined by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development.

The 2020 area median income  for the Portland area was $70,630 for a single person and $100,900 for a family of four. And the rents for inclusionary zoning range from $1,766 for a one bedroom to $2,523for a four bedroom.

Culley said the economic downturn caused by measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 does not seem to have lowered construction costs. But he said the virus, which has hit urban areas the hardest, seems to have prompted more people from places like New York City and Boston to consider moving to Portland. And he remains confident that Portland will rebound once the virus is under control.

“There is a lot of uncertainty in the short term,” Culley said. “In the long term, Portland is going to be a very appealing place to live and we don’t see it dampening the long-term demand for housing.”

If the project comes to fruition, it would significantly expand the city’s rental housing inventory. And it would claim the title of the city’s tallest building – unless a taller one gets built in the meantime.

Franklin Towers, a low-income housing complex operated by the Portland Housing Authority, is currently the city’s tallest building at about 175 feet and 16 stories, while the 13-story West Portland Harborview stands at 168 feet, according to the real estate data website Emporis.

Other downtown buildings of notable height include the 15-story Back Bay Tower, 14-story Time & Temperature building and the 10-story Maine Bank & Trust Building. And the spire of the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception is about 200 feet tall.

However, a proposal from East Brown Cow Management to build a 20- to 25-story building in the Old Port is still being reviewed by the city.

Tim Soley, president of East Brown Cow, said the pandemic has forced his company to take another look at that proposal, which would allow taller buildings in the entire B-3 zone in exchange for publicly accessible and preserved open space. He expects to file a revised proposal, based on conversations with city planning staff.

“Like a lot of organizations, in the last six months we’ve pivoted to a review of our project to make sure it happens in a way that reflects the current state of the world and the economy,” Soley said in an email. “We’re doing this in concert with the city, and are also taking the opportunity to identify other areas to further articulate and sharpen our plan to even more fully deliver on our vision for this key property as a new centerpiece to our thriving downtown community.”

Among the rental properties in Portland, only Bayside Village has more units than Redfern’s proposed tower. According to the city’s 2018 landlord registry, Bayside Village has 294 bedrooms for rent, but Tom Watson, of Port Property Management, is converting those single-room rentals into 193 more traditional studio, one-, two-, and four-bedroom apartments.

Culley said he is not planning on seeking any public subsidy for the project. But he noted that a similar project, which he declined to name, is seeking an affordable housing subsidy from the city and that he’d be “watching this closely.”

NOTE: This story was updated at 10:45 a.m. Friday to correct the maximum rent prices under Portland’s inclusionary zoning ordinance.


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