A proposal to build what could become Portland’s tallest building cleared a hurdle this week and is headed to the City Council.

The Planning Board voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend zoning amendments that would allow Redfern Properties to build an 18-story apartment building in the heart of the downtown. The proposed 190-foot-tall high-rise at 200 Federal St. would have 265 apartments, an infusion of housing in a tight real estate market that the developer says is not about to cool off.

The structure would be 15 feet taller than Portland’s tallest building, Franklin Towers. A 20- to 25-story building has been proposed for the Old Port, but that developer was re-evaluating the project during the pandemic.

Under existing zoning rules, buildings within the downtown area near Congress Street are allowed to be 190 feet tall. However, only 150 feet of a building’s height – roughly 14 stories – can be occupied as offices, residences or other uses. The additional 40 feet is allowed only for use as an “architectural cap” to enhance design or to hide rooftop mechanical systems.

Redfern Properties is seeking permission to fully utilize 18 stories of the building.

The zoning amendments still need approval from the City Council. If the council approves, the developer will still need site plan approval from the Planning Board. The Historic Preservation Board also will review the project because it’s in the Congress Street Historic District.

Jonathan Culley of Redfern Properties said the project would contain mostly studios and one-bedroom units, plus some two-bedroom units, with monthly rents projected between $1,200 and $2,000. It would alleviate the city’s housing crunch, as well as helping the city meet climate goals by allowing more workers to live downtown rather than commute to the city, Culley said.

Culley predicted that demand for housing in Portland will remain strong. In addition to people moving out of larger cities and telecommuting because of COVID-19, Culley said demand for housing downtown is also being driven by new employment opportunities that have come with an influx of large employers such as Wex, Sun Life U.S., Covetrus and the Roux Institute.

He also expects more “climate migration,” such as people moving away from worsening fires on the West Coast.

“Their work is now portable because of what we learned during the pandemic,” Culley said. “We’re very, very bullish on Portland and think it’s imperative that we continue to build new housing to meet the demand or else we’re going to continue to get squeezed.”

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.

The plan will not be affected by the Green Deal for Portland, which was passed by citizen referendum in November, because the project application was filed before the election, according to Christine Grimando, the city’s planning and urban development director. That would change if the project seeks public assistance, such as a tax increment financing agreement with the city.

Ten percent, or 27, of the units will be deed-restricted to remain affordable to middle-income families earning up to the area median income, which ranges from $70,630 for a single person to $100,900 for a family of four.

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, the 14-story Time & Temperature building and the 10-story Maine Bank & Trust Building. The spire of the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception is about 200 feet tall.

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. Company president Tim Soley said in August he was re-evaluating the proposal in light of the pandemic and planned to file a revised proposal.


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