2015-05-22 / Front Page

Neighbors sick of health care development

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Although South Portland officials continue to express disinterest in a development proposal put forth by Martin’s Point Health Care, the answer, “No,” has not yet been heard, leading to continued public campaigning against the project.

In March, Martin’s Point — a nonprofit multi-specialty medical group with nine primary health care centers and more than 70 doctor’s offices in Maine and New Hampshire — announced it had its eye on the city’s planning and development office. According to Dick Daigle, vice president of support services for Martin’s Point, the company would like to close the complex it has occupied for the past 14 years at 51 Ocean St. and relocate to the planning office lot, located at the corner of Ocean and Sawyer streets.

The 2.88-acre property was home to Hamlin Elementary School from 1961 until 2002, when it was closed due to low enrollment. The school department later gave up the building and, in 2010, the planning office took up residence.

A year later, the city signed a five-year lease, good through

April 2016, with the Community Garden Collective to turn the school’s old playground and ball field into 39 (now 43) public vegetable plots. Later that fall the unused gym became the winter home to the South Portland Farmers Market.

If the city agrees to sell the property, Martin’s Point would tear down the school and build a new office complex to house its five South Portland providers, plus a new, sixth practice. At a city council workshop March 9, Daigle presented concept drawings for a 17,000-square-foot office building and 85 parking spots. Although Daigle promised Martin’s Point would continue to provide space on the property for the community garden, his proposal nonetheless drew criticism from neighbors, who called it an “outsized development” for its residential surroundings.

The council neither rejected nor endorsed the purchase offer, saying only that Daigle should meet with area residents and come back once he had buy-in from the community.

At a May 7 meeting with residents, Daigle announced the project had been downsized to 12,700-square feet —1,000 square feet larger than the old Hamlin School now on the site. Daigle has also shared that the new office, if built, would have 33 employees — up from 30 at the current location — and that it would expect to serve nine patients per hour from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

However, that was still deemed too much of a behemoth by area residents.

At a Monday, May 18 city council meeting, Parrott Street resident Susan Chase, a founding member of the Community Garden Collective and partner to City Councilor Patti Smith, presented a petition purportedly signed by 256 city residents.

“(Martin’s Point) has talked about revising their plans, but the best they could do was a 12,000-square-foot commercial building at our neighborhood center corner,” Chase said. “That is too big. It would distort the character of our neighborhood. The other thing is, they are amendable to carving out as much green space as possible, but that came out to be one-third to half an acre, with parking lot all around. That’s not acceptable to us. We’re using that space. It gets active use almost daily — winter, spring, summer and fall.”

That petition presented by Chase asked, “Would you support the city creating a park out of the green space at Hamlin school?”

On Tuesday, City Clerk Sue Mooney said she would not bother to validate the signatures, as the petition was not in a format that would compel council action.

“There’s nothing binding about it,” she said. “It’s just basically them trying to show the council that they have large support from the neighborhood.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, Mooney said, no city councilor had expressed interest in reviewing the petition.

At Monday’s council meeting, several city residents joined Chase in chastising the council for considering the Martin’s Point proposal.

“This is a key gathering point in the neighborhood,” said Heather Street resident Adam Lambert, who said he maintains a plot in the community garden. “To replace all of that with a parking lot would really be, I believe, pretty devastating to the people who live immediately around it.”

The lone supporter of the project among audience members was Brigham Street resident Russ Lunt, who attends all council meetings. He said South Portland can illafford to lose Martin’s Point on the heels of a recent announcement that Marshalls, HomeGoods and Bob’s Discount Furniture will all decamp to Scarborough from their current homes in the Shops at Clarks Pond.

“It’s too bad they’re leaving and Scarborough’s getting them. That’s terrible,” Lunt said. “With Martin’s Point, there’s a chance of getting tax dollars we need now and they all just want to chuck it for that garden. You can go to Maxwell’s and buy an ear of corn for gosh’s sake.”

Still, those who live in the area said they don’t care to live in the shadow of any commercial site larger than the mom and pop shops that now populate the area.

“Part of our message is that economic development is important, but this feels very unbalanced to us in that neighborhood,” said Sawyer Street resident John Gosselin. “Local, small, independent businesses would seem better there than a large commercial space with lots of traffic coming in and out.”

Meanwhile, former city mayor Rosemarie De Angelis suggested the relationship between Martin’s Point and the city may be a little too comfortable.

“The possible sale of the Hamlin School has been one of neither transparency nor full disclosure,” she said. “This is not the way to do business.

“In the years I served on the council, residents sometimes said, ‘I don’t trust what the council does,’ or ‘I think the (city) manager is cutting side deals.’ I defended our actions. I made every effort for residents to see the work as honest and above board, but I have begun to question my own defense. I have started to question what happens in our city.”

De Angelis cited half a dozen instances of alleged back-room decision-making in recent years and suggested Martin’s Point may have a sweetheart deal in place for Hamlin School.

“The public should be aware that not a dime would exchange hands in this potential sale,” she said. “Rather, Martin’s Point has a purchase and sale agreement on the building at the corner of E and D streets and simply wants an even trade.”

However, City Manager Jim Gailey strongly refuted claims that a deal of any kind is in the works.

“I keep on hearing that we had dealings behind closed doors and out of the public eye and I disagree with that, because, in this particular case, the only question that was raised to the city council out of the public eye was, ‘Would you entertain a workshop on this proposal?’” he said.

“Martin’s Point came to the city,” Gailey said. “The question for the city council was, ‘What would you like us to have as the next step?’ There were no votes. There were no opinions (expressed) by the city council. The city council said, ‘Let’s send this to workshop and have an open-air forum and make this public.’ That’s how the process took place. The city council did not talk about the project in any depth behind closed doors.”

“I was in that executive session,” said Mayor Linda Cohen. “The council has not been involved with Martin’s Point since that (March) workshop. This council has taken no position on this project and only brought it to the public. To have someone come and ask the city if we’d be willing to sell a piece of city property, that is definitely something that has to be done in public.”

However, while Cohen acknowledged the first decision to schedule a workshop on the Martin’s Point proposal was done behind closed doors, she has since declined to schedule a second such session.

On Tuesday, Councilor Brad Fox emailed Cohen to request “an immediate workshop” on the issue.

“It should be clear to all by now that the Hamlin School neighborhood does not want such an ill-fitting proposal to proceed. Nor do I,” he wrote.

“If the city manager feels this should come to a workshop, he can schedule it for an agenda,” Cohen replied. “However, council’s workshop planning is done in public, not in emails or behind the public’s eye. We are already accused of not being transparent.”

According to Gailey, “the Martin’s Point proposal is really one that doesn’t have a strong backing,” from his administration.

Still, Daigle said while Martin’s Point has not been given any kind of green light, neither has it been discouraged by city hall in its overtures.

“They have not indicated they are not willing to keep an open mind and consider what may be possible,” he said. “So, we continue to work with the community. At some point I expect we’ll make a presentation to the city council and, at that point, they will make a decision of whether they want to support the project or not.”

Daigle said the next step for Martin’s Point is to schedule another neighborhood meeting. Already, he said, plans are being drawn up that would expand the area allotted for green space and community gardens to three-quarters of an acre.

And what if the city council should, at some point, signal overt disinterest in selling or swapping the Hamlin School property? Might Martin’s Point also leave South Portland?

“We’re not prepared to really talk about what our future plans are if this does not work out,” Daigle said. “At some point a decision will need to be made (by the city council) and we will respond to whatever decision is made.

“This is an ongoing process and we have not finalized any plans for the site,” Daigle said. “We continue to work with the neighbors and to solicit input on what we can achieve at the site. We’ve approached this very openly and are interested in soliciting input from anyone interested in this project. We certainly are not doing anything behind closed doors.”

Return to top