2015-03-13 / Front Page

Martin’s Point has plans for city office

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

South Portland Planning Director Tex Haeuser stands outside the former Hamlin Elementary School at the corner of Sawyer Street and Ocean Avenue, used since 2010 to house the city’s department of planning and development. Martin’s Point Health Care has offered to buy the 2.88-acre property and make it the new home of the company’s South Portland branch. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland Planning Director Tex Haeuser stands outside the former Hamlin Elementary School at the corner of Sawyer Street and Ocean Avenue, used since 2010 to house the city’s department of planning and development. Martin’s Point Health Care has offered to buy the 2.88-acre property and make it the new home of the company’s South Portland branch. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — One of the largest medical concerns in the state has its eye set on expanding in South Portland, but the plans got a chilly reception at Monday’s city council meeting.

Martin’s Point Health Care is a not-forprofit multi-specialty medical group with nine primary health care centers and more than 70 health care providers in Maine and New Hampshire. It also administers two health care plans, including the largest Medicare Advantage plan in the state.

Martin’s Point has maintained a site at 51 Ocean St. in South Portland for 14 years, but the company has begun to outgrow that building. According to Richard “Dick” Daigle, vice president of support services at the medical conglomerate, Martin’s Point does not own the building. And, even if it could expand there, he said, residents of the Knightville district already complain regularly about how parking there tends to overflow into the neighborhood.

On Monday’s workshop, Daigle presented a “very preliminary” alternative. Martin’s Point would like to buy a 2.88-acre lot at the corner of Ocean and Sawyer streets and build a new office that would house up to five medical practices. Although the plan presented by Daigle showed a 17,000-squarefoot building and 85 parking spots, it was only to demonstrate the maximum potential use of the site. The actual building would be smaller, he said.

But few attendees at Monday’s meeting cared for the concept, at any size.

The spot is as much hallowed ground as any place else in the city. It was the site of a town hall, built in 1874 when Cape Elizabeth and South Portland were still one municipality. The second floor of the building, which burned down in 1921, served as the first public high school in the area and South Portland’s first mayor, Edward C. Reynolds, was in the inaugural four-person graduating class that marched out of the hall with pomp and circumstance in 1877.

In 1961 the site become home to Hamlin Elementary School, replacing the former Heights School, which had stood next to city hall. Hamlin was closed due to low enrollment in 2002 and was subsequently pressed into service for alternative education and off-campus programs. The property then passed back into city hands, becoming home to the planning and development office in October 2010.

However, that was never intended to be a permanent solution. City officials acknowledge the Hamlin school is only a temporary home for the planning office, with many pointing to hopes the city might move all of its disparate administrative functions into Mahoney Middle School. With the high school renovation now complete, the school board has recently begun taking steps to consolidate the city’s two middle schools into one new building on Wescott Street, where Memorial Middle School now stands. However, that project is said to be at least a decade away. Even so, the planning office will eventually move again, most likely leading to the demolition of the old Hamlin School.

“We don’t want the building,” said Councilor Tom Blake. “The school department gave it away for a reason. It was built during a time when we built things lousy in America.”

“Somewhere down the road, this property is going to be sold. It is going to be developed in some way,” said Mayor Linda Cohen.

That day may come, and City Manager Jim Gailey said it would be up to Martin’s Point to offer the city a “turnkey solution.”

“We’re not going to have hundreds of thousands of dollars coming out of city coffers to make this project work,” he said. “We need to have a relocation plan for planning and development that’s turnkey, so that planning can close their doors one day and open up another day.”

But what concerned most of opponents of the Martin’s Point plan at Monday’s council meeting was the other use at the Hamlin property.

In 2011, a five-year lease good through April 2016 was brokered with the then-new Community Garden Collective to turn the former playground and ball field on the site into 39 (now 43) vegetable plots. Later that fall the unused gym became the winter home to the South Portland Farmers Market.

More than 25 city residents addressed the Martin’s Point proposal during Monday’s council meeting, many of whom said they were patients at one or more of the medical nonprofit’s practices.

First up was Russ Lunt of Brigham Street.

“It looks like a beautiful plan,” he said. “I’m probably going to get flack for it, but I think it’s a very good idea.”

As Lunt predicted, every remaining speaker took the opposing side.

“We bought our home a little more than a year ago and we’ve been overjoyed with the neighborhood,” said Parrott Street resident Seth Kearns. “I see this as the first step in the degradation of a neighborhood. It’s a mistake for the city to go down this road.”

“I am very skeptical of public-private partnerships,” said Mussey Street resident Greg Lewis. “They always seem to benefit the private entity and the public gets the shaft. We don’t have a very good record of real estate deals in this city benefiting the residents of this city.

“I have to wonder why Martin’s Point doesn’t approach some private landowners for their development. Maybe they think they can get a better deal from the city, like others have in the past,” Lewis said.

Others were less dismissive of Martin’s Point, but questioned how long it would take the heath care conglomerate to outgrow the site, given its rapid expansion in recent years. Martin’s Point opened a new $3 million facility in Gorham in September and is working toward a summer ribbon cutting for a similar site on Barra Road in Biddeford.

“I think we have to look beyond Martin’s Point owning the land,” said Patricia Whyte of Orchard Street. “Unless we put some sort of covenant in place, what happens when Martin’s Point leaves the area? What happens to the gardens then?”

“When we have a green space, it is green for a reason and once you lose it, you are never going to get it back,” Whyte said, adding, “I think the city needs to be the guardian of this space and not let it go.”

However, Helen Slocum of Smith Street, speaking as president and founding member of the Community Garden Collective, has a different guardian in mind. Slocum said she would prefer for the council to drawn a line down the middle of the property and hand the half being used by the garden collective over to the South Portland Land Trust. Whether the collective would be able to negotiate continued access to the property or not, an easement would at least guarantee the use as open space in perpetuity, she said.

Slocum also discounted Daigle’s assertion that Martin’s Point would keep and even expand the community garden, saying the proposed location on the lot would be useless unless it was clear cut.

“We need the sun,” she said. “You can’t grow vegetables in the shade.”

Others said the Hamlin School property has benefits to the community beyond the garden spaces, affording opportunities in addition to its remaining basketball hoops not available at other city parks.

“If you can throw a Frisbee in Hinckley Park for 15 minutes without stepping in dog poop, you’ve done something,” said Simmonds Road resident Billy Maley. “It’s a beautiful park, but the dogs are in charge.”

Meanwhile, Susan Chase, partner of City Councilor Patti Smith and one of the four garden collective founders, said she feared for the impact of the development on nearby Trout Brook, just 750 feet from the school and already registered as an “urban impaired stream.”

Jacky Hildreth, president of the Maine State Beekeepers Association, also lamented the amount of paving that would go into creating nearly 100 parking spots, even if the community gardens are retained.

“The landscape of South Portland has changed significantly in the past 20 years,” he said. “Every decision we make to change an area to a less pollination-friendly environment adds up.”

“This project does not belong in a neighborhood, Mill Creek is where this should be,” said Parrot Street resident Sandy Pablo. “We bought our homes because this was a neighborhood that was a community and not a place that had big commercial buildings. Shame on the city council for suggesting to rezone this property. Martin’s Point does wonderful things, but they need to do it in a different place.”

“We did not bring this forward. This came to us,” said Mayor Cohen, in response the “for shame” comment. Still she acknowledged, “We’re never, ever going to make everyone happy.”

That much seemed clear to everyone on the council.

“I’m totally conflicted,” Councilor Brad Fox said. “When I took this job I didn’t think it would be this difficult.”

Fox was not the only one conflicted. At the start of debate, the council voted 4-1, with Councilor Maxine Beecher opposed, to allow Councilor Patti Smith to speak. Smith had opened by noting she sits on the board of the Community Garden Collective. The council also voted 5-0 to let Blake participate, after he reminded it of his position on the South Portland Land Trust, an organization he also helped create.

However, Fox’s offer to recuse himself because he is a patient of Martin’s Point was disregarded as a potential conflict of interest.

However, most on the council did share Fox’s conflict over how to proceed.

“You are the kind of business we want to do business with,” Councilor Claude Morgan told Daigle. “But my feeling here is that there’s not much here to talk about. I can’t support it unless there’s enough wiggle room for real compromise to take place.”

“I can say for certainty we would not build a 17,000-squarefoot facility on that site,” Daigle said. “In hindsight, it probably was an oversight on my part to show you what it could support.”

Daigle said the building would probably ring at under 14,000 square feet (the Hamlin school is 11,744 square feet, including the gym) and that it would be designed to fit in with the surroundings. The Gorham campus, he noted, was given “a farmhouse look” for just that reason. Martin’s Point also is in the process of signing over a 14-acre easement on the Gorham property, Daigle said, leaving open the possibility that some of the South Portland lot could end up going to the land trust. Things like permeable paving and other options to protect Trout Brook are on the table, as well, he said.

“We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for the environment,” Daigle said. “We’re concerned with that as well.”

But enthusiasm for the proposal was minimal. Blake, who initially supported the project, said his support “was definitely tempered” by the public feedback.

“Although I’m sure Martin’s Point is an excellent company, I’m not sure this is the right place for them,” said Smith. “It’s very hard for me to say something of this magnitude and scale will fit.”

“I have a real tough time looking at this lot, knowing this neighborhood very, very well, and thinking of a big business going there and then losing all of that green space,” agreed Cohen, calling the proposal “totally out of character” for the neighborhood.

“Personally, I feel it would not fit there. I think it would just overwhelm that corner,” she said.

“I’m not saying in the end I will or I won’t support it, but I do feel there is a long way to go here before anyone is going to come to the table and want to agree to this happening,” said Cohen.

According to Gailey, the next step will be for Martin’s Point to make its case directly to area residents before returning to the city council.

“The ultimate goal,” Gailey said, is for the next council workshop on the proposal, “if there is one,” to not be dominated by an hour’s worthy of public testimony opposed to the project.

Although that would appear to be a tough sell, the door is not completely closed on the city’s end. Blake said revenue from the project, including as much as $100,000 in permitting fees, could be used along with nearly $1 million in the city’s “land bank” account to buy a larger green space in the area, essentially allowing the residents to “trade up.”

Plus, he noted, there is a definite upside to getting the Hamlin school onto the tax rolls. Martin’s Point is a nonprofit, but it does pay property taxes, Daigle said.

“Every single year there’d be enough coming in from tax revenues to pay for a couple of [city] employees,” Blake said.

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