2016-04-22 / Front Page

St. John’s Church could become part of residential development

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


The former St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St. in Broadway, opened in 1940 and held its final Mass Sept. 11, 2013. The 2.33-acre lot was sold to Cafua Management in December 2013, which planned to tear it down and build a Dunkin’ Donuts. Neighbors objected to that plan, however, and Cafua has recently put the property back up on the market. This past week, city officials confirmed a purchase and sale agreement has been signed between Cafua and Scarborough developer Kerry Anderson, who plans a residential development on the site. (Adrian Dowling courtesy photo) The former St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St. in Broadway, opened in 1940 and held its final Mass Sept. 11, 2013. The 2.33-acre lot was sold to Cafua Management in December 2013, which planned to tear it down and build a Dunkin’ Donuts. Neighbors objected to that plan, however, and Cafua has recently put the property back up on the market. This past week, city officials confirmed a purchase and sale agreement has been signed between Cafua and Scarborough developer Kerry Anderson, who plans a residential development on the site. (Adrian Dowling courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — After languishing in development limbo following a failed bid to tear it down and remake into a Dunkin’ Donuts, the former St. John Church at 611 Main St. in South Portland could become the focal point of a new residential development.

In an April 14 email to Thirlmere Avenue resident Joyce Mendoza, City Manager Jim Gailey said a developer has signed a purchase and sale agreement with Cafua Management, a the Massachusetts-based Dunkin’ developer that bought the deconsecrated Catholic church in December 2013 for $731,025.

Mendoza, who was an unofficial community spokesman during the months-long fight that ultimately dunked Cafua’s plans, declined comment Tuesday. Mendoza has also been active in the neighborhood uprising against recently defeated plans for a propane distribution complex at the nearby Rigby Yard railway station, submitted to the city by NGL Energy Partners.

“After two years of fighting successfully Dunkin’ Donuts and the Rigby Yard project, I am not going to be the point person again. Someone (else) will step up I imagine,” she said, via email.

However, Mendoza did say the developer plans to host a neighborhood meeting with folks who live near the church, “hopefully within the next two weeks.”

“Names of neighborhood members have been given to the developer and a strong encouragement was given by staff that he should reach out to the neighborhood sooner than later,” Gailey wrote in his April 14 email. “He agrees and is finalizing some preliminary plans to show you. Timeline to reach out to you is probably within the next 10 days.”

On Tuesday, City Planner Tex Haeuser confirmed word circulating among Mendoza’s neighbors that the potential buyer is Scarborough developer Kerry Anderson.

Anderson, owner of KDA Development, is the engine behind Scarborough’s Eastern Village, a 154-lot development first approved by the Scarborough Planning Board in 2007, just before the national recession hit. Along the way, plans evolved for the development, still being built, to include multi-family townhouses among the single-family homes, while 10 lots were reserved for affordable housing sales.

Cafua signed its purchase and sale agreement with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland in June 2013 after it announced plans to close due to declining enrollment. A final mass was held Sept. 11 of that year.

However, Cafua’s plans never quite got off the ground. Neighbors were immediately critical of its plans, leading the city council to hatch a plan in which it proposed to lease Cafua the vacant lot at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets, immediately adjacent to an existing Cafua Dunkin’ Donuts. That would have drawn Cafua away form the St. John’s property, but the concept quickly drew in congregants from Temple Bet Ha’am, who fancied having a fast food neighbor no more than the Thirlmere Avenue resident.

Eventually, the council solved the issue by enacting new zoning rules, including the creation of a Thornton Heights Commercial District and a Main Street Community Commercial District. The latter zone, located in the area of the St. John’s, specifically forbade fast food restaurants and drive-thru windows, effectively killing Cafua’s plans. That change did not infringe on Cafua’s development rights, city attorney Sally Daggett said at the time, because the city beat Cafua to the punch, enacting the zoning change before it submitted a site plan application with South Portland’s department of planning and development.

However, there are wrinkles still to be ironed out if Anderson is to succeed in his development ambitions for the church property. Anderson could not be reached Tuesday, but according to both Gailey and Haeuser, Anderson has indicated that he would prefer to leave the church standing, converting it into space for one or more businesses allowed in the Main Street Community Commercial District. He would instead tear down the rectory and school/office building behind the church, replacing them with a housing development of some kind.

However, Haeuser said to make the project work financially, Anderson wants to convince the city council to put the entire church parcel into the Main Street Community Commercial District. Currently, little more than 1 acre of the lot still sits in the city’s Residential A zone. That, Haeuser said, means Anderson would be limited to no more than four housing units on that acre, which would each have to be set up as a free-standing, single family home. The residential zone also limits how much of a parking lot Anderson could attach to any businesses that takes up residence in the church, Haeuser said. If Anderson can convince the council to move the back half of the church lot into the Main Street Community Commercial District, he would be able to put up a building as much as three stories high, with 24 living units per acre.

That, however, has some nearby residents concerned.

“There is a question of how appropriate that kind of infill development will be to the neighborhood,” said Devin Deane, who in February won a lawsuit against the city over in-fill development that, the courts agreed, should not have been allowed further up on Thirlmere Avenue.

Also complicating the issue is that Cafua has reportedly allowed only a short time-frame for Anderson to complete the purchase and sale agreement, or else forfeit the deal. Gailey did not say how much time Cafua is giving, but in his email to Mendoza, called it “unusual.”

Still, Gailey said the city council left part of the church lot in the residential zone specifically to slow down any development deals, in ensure time for a thorough review by the planning board of any building projects there, and to limit commercial development

“Staff proposed the entire parcel (be) zoned with the Main Street Zone, but the council opted to keep the division the way it was and would require future proposals to seek a zone change,” Gailey wrote. “This allowed for the vetting of good and bad proposals and didn’t give an automatic zone for commercial activity to happen in.”

St. John is located in the heart of the Thornton Heights neighborhood, rising up back when the area was called Skunk Hill and boasted a gentrified air, despite the questionable moniker, with attractions that included Rigby Park, one of the nation’s fastest horse-racing tracks, as well as the Portland Country Club, which set up a 12-hole golf course on the old Thornton Farm in 1897.

The horse track fell on hard times after eight years of operation, while the country club decamped to Falmouth. Soon, as the industrial revolution took root, Rigby Park became Rigby Yards, home base to Maine Central Railroad. At one time, the yard employed nearly 1,800 people, fueling residential growth in the area that led to enlargement of Mount Calvary Chapel as a parish of local residents in 1926 and construction of St. John in 1940.

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