2015-02-27 / Front Page

Council closes ranks on open space

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — While it’s not yet clear what will ultimately become of the vacant lot at the corner of Westbrook and Main Streets in South Portland, one thing is for certain — residents won’t be pulling into the spot for their morning cup of coffee.

“We have not had any discussions with Dunkin’ Donuts since the summertime. From staff’s perspective, that deal is dead,” City Manager Jim Gailey said at Monday’s city council workshop. “We are not entertaining any further discussions with them on this parcel.”

At Monday’s meeting, councilors debated what to do with the lot in the wake of the Dunkin’ deal, hatched in 2013 as a means to keep a Massachusetts-based developer from tearing down the former St. John’s church at 611 Main St. and replacing it with a 24-hour Dunkin’ drive-thru. As a carrot, the city offered up the former playground lot, located at 633 Main St., inadvertently drawing fire from neighborhood residents and, in particular, members of Congregation Bet Ha’am, the Jewish temple located next to the proposed development site.

Debate raged for more than a year as the city council first put the former catholic church into a new “Main Street Community Commercial” zoning district — which, among other things, bans drive-thru windows and 24-hour fast food restaurants — then attempted to put the old playground into a new “Thornton Heights Commercial” zone, which would have eased the way for the Dunkin’ development. However, with public sentiment lined up against development of the former playground site, that 2.33-acre site was pulled from the zone. It remains today split down the middle, half in a residential zone and half along Main Street in a “Limited Business” district.

“We took a lot of heat for that whole issue and all of the discussions around it,” said Councilor Melissa Linscott, “but I really do believe our intentions were good. We were trying to minimize a bad situation and find a compromise, and a solution, that was going to work out best for the neighborhood.”

Monday’s discussion revolved around what to do with the site going forward and most of the council favored retaining it as open space. However, some suggested the council should take some formal action, transforming the corner lot into an official city park, even if in name only.

“We had a quandary in the last year only because in the last 100 years, we didn’t take action,” said Councilor Tom Blake.

Linscott suggested there would be some “benefit” to neighborhood residents even if the council only votes to name the park, and never puts a penny into it. After all, she noted, under local ordinances, registered sex offenders cannot reside within 750 feet of a city park.

However, while South Portland has invested almost no money into the lots since selling the former Sawyer School to Bet Ha’am in 2005, the means may be forthcoming to transform the site. According to Kate Lewis, vice president of South Portland Land Trust, her group has offered to take on the site with a conservation easement that would keep it permanently green.

“We see the parcel as a critical piece of open space in the midst of one neighborhood in they city that is under constant development pressure,” she said.

That, said Bet Ha’am president Lisa Munderback, is a move her temple-mates would rally behind.

“Congregation Bet Ha’am would certainly support that and would actually put some money toward maintenance if that was an issue for the (city) council,” she said.

That offer certainly seemed to tempt some on the council.

“We have an abutter that’s offered $100,000 on the table to help improve that park,” Blake said. “That’s quite an offering. I’m not saying it should be the next Mill Creek, but it could be more pleasing.”

Throughout the past year, one common argument in favor of the Dunkin’ Donuts was that few people, if any, currently use the former playground as a park or recreational space. It is, simply put, a vacant, unused lot.

However, Blake said the space has a benefit even in that’s all it’s used for.

“Try and imagine Ge Erskine Park as it used to be, with a U-Haul place on it,” he said, asking his fellow councilors to imagine the sliver of green space on Broadway, at the base of the Casco Bay Bridge.

Stumping in favor of the easement, Blake said it would hold the site “in trust for future generations.”

“After all, we have nothing in place that would prevent us from selling Hinckley Park tomorrow, if the price was right,” he said.

In the short term, however, it appears the corner lot is destined to get worse, before it gets better, at least as far as being a green space goes.

Gailey put back on the table Monday a plan that had been in place before the Dunkin’ development materialized, which is to allow contractors working on Main Street to use the site as a “lay-down yard” to store pipes, gravel, stone dust and other materials.

The council will vote by month’s end to award a contract for Phase II of the Main Street re-construction project. Driven by a need to separate stormwater runoff from the sewer system, thus preventing effluent from overflowing into the Fore River and Casco Bay, the project will eventually see Main Street between Westbrook Street and Rigby Yard reconfigured from a four-lane highway to mixed-use layout with on-street parking, bike lanes, wide sidewalks and a center landscaped esplanade.

“Main Street is gong to be dirt from building to building,” Gailey said. “We are clearing that area right out and rebuilding it from scratch.

A decision on whether or not to allow use of the former playground lot by contractors needs to be made “within the next one to three weeks,” Gailey said.

“I will say it will be an ugly corner for a year or two,” Gailey said. “Some may shriek at the thought of dump trucks and loaders using that through Phase II and III of that (Main Street) project, but there are some longterm benefits.”

For example, the contractor would be required to rebuild the site, which could include new loam, making for a vast improvement over the sandy soil now on site, which supports, at best, only a feeble approximation of a lawn.

However, not everyone at Monday’s meeting was in favor of keeping the spot as a park. While many spoke in favor of that approach, Thirlmere Avenue resident Devin Deane suggested that, as the Main Street project is, in part, designed mimic the success of a recent revitalization project in Knightville, the front half of the lot might be put to better use.

“As a neighbor, my interest, thinking long term, is the redevelopment of the businesses district on Main Street where we have, I won’t say ‘bad businesses’, but less favorable businesses in there,” he said. “I’d like to see more community-based businesses, something like the Rosemont (Market and) Bakery there.”

Meanwhile, under questioning from Councilor Maxine Beecher, Gailey said he does not see any fallout from the failed Dunkin’ deal from Cafua Management, the firm behind the development, which bought St. John’s Church.

“Anyone can file suit,” he said. “Whether that will hold up in court, I couldn’t tell you, but I don’t see us having any liability there.”

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