West End LLC, which bought the old Williston-West Church in Portland at auction in September 2019, wants to convert vacant space in the parish house and sanctuary into additional residential units. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

A new residence-only redevelopment plan for the old Williston-West Church has the blessing of the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association and Greater Portland Landmarks.

A decade after neighbors filed an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit over plans to convert part of the century-old John Calvin Stevens-designed parish house and the sanctuary into commercial space, the new owner says renovating the site solely for housing will preserve it into the future.

“We always believed that housing was feasible and the highest and best use,” said Anne Pringle, president of the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association.

The group is “very pleased” that the new owner, West End LLC, represented by Portland-based development firm NewHeight, “reached out to us early to discuss a solution that worked out for all,” Pringle said.

Plans call for four units to be built in the sanctuary of the church. File photo

The church vacated the Thomas Street building in 2011 to merge with Immanuel Baptist-American Baptist Churches and form Williston-Immanuel United Church at 156 High St. in Portland.

Australian businessman Frank Monsour purchased the property in late 2011 for $658,000 and received city approval to redevelop part of the parish house for office space for his company, Majella Global Technologies. His plan also included converting the rest of the parish house into five residences and the sanctuary into a community hall available for rental. Special zoning permission was needed because commercial activity is not allowed in that area.

A dozen residents in 2012 banded together and sued Monsour and the city, arguing the commercial aspect did not fit into the neighborhood and ran counter to the city’s Comprehensive Plan. The group won their case on Dec. 31, 2013, in Cumberland County Superior Court, but that ruling was overturned by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Oct. 16, 2014, paving the way for Monsour’s plan.

Before filing for bankruptcy in 2019, Monsour converted the back half of the parish house into five residences, all of which are now occupied. The front half of the parish house, the space eyed for offices, remains vacant. West End LLC acquired the property in September 2019.

Erin Cooperrider, a principal with NewHeight, said that a zoning agreement needs to be amended before West End can move forward with its plans to add six more residential units, either as apartments or condos. Four units would be in the sanctuary and two in vacant space in the parish house. Plans for the community hall have been scrapped. The council is set to review the amendment March 15 and hold a public hearing and final vote on it April 5.

“As you look at the post-COVID world, there is not much of a demand for that type of assembly space or commercial space,” Cooperrider said. “As we are looking at the highest and best use, it is residential.”

Final plans, Cooperrider said, will be reviewed with the neighborhood and the historic preservation board and go through the  Planning Board site plan review process.

The Williston-West sanctuary was built in 1877 and designed by Francis Fassett. The parish house, designed by John Calvin Stevens, was built in 1905. The buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places and are part of the city’s West End Historic District.

The project has the support of Greater Portland Landmarks, said Julie Larry, the group’s director for advocacy.

“As a preservation organization, our main concern is finding a compatible use for a historic building,” Larry said. “Churches are some of the most challenging buildings to reuse. We were less concerned than some of the neighbors were with what that use would be as long as it was compatible with the historic character of the building whether it was commercial space or residential.”

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