2016-05-27 / Front Page

Council OKs Brick Hill development

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A plan to bring more housing to South Portland’s west end cleared a hurdle Monday, May 23, as the city council gave its initial blessing to a zoning change that will up the allowed number of units in the Brick Hill neighborhood.

The 120 units that will result, however, will not go for the low-income rates found elsewhere in the development. Instead, the market rate apartments will likely cost more than $1,000 per month for a one-bedroom unit and upward of $1,400 per month for a two-bedroom.

“We need housing, there’s no doubt about that. We need it at many different levels, but that doesn’t mean your LLC has to address them all,” Councilor Claude Morgan told the developer.

Although billed as a Richard Berman development, the new section of the site – slated to include 10 townhouses, with 12 units each – will be built by Scarborough-based Risbara Brothers Construction. Rocky Risbara said his family firm will join with partner Kevin Bunker to buy out Berman’s share off the remaining development lot.

It was Berman who in 2006 first presented the plan to make over the former Maine Youth Center at 675 Westbrook St.. The site’s large brick dorm houses (hence the site name) became a series of 44 affordable housing units. The administration building, known as “the castle,” became a Maine Medical Center complex, while a barn designed by famed architect John Calvin Stevens, who also designed the smaller dorm “cottages,” became home to the Opportunity Alliance. Meanwhile, Avesta Housing built a series of low-income apartments while Berman put up 88 market rate condominiums.

But that left a swatch of land abutting the Portland International Jetport, originally slated to complete the mixed-use vision for the site as an office complex. However, plans to entice Fairchild Semiconductor to the headquarters there fell through. More recently, the site was eyeballed by the state for the Department of Health and Human Services building that eventually went up on jetport property.

After a decade of no luck luring a business tenant, and with news of a Portland area housing shortage, Risbara said he had an idea modeled after the 183-unit Blue Spruce Farm development underway off Spring Street in Westbrook.

Risbara said that site now has 50 units done and filled, with another 48 under construction. The second wave of units boasts commitments for Sept. 1 occupancy from 13 tenants.

“I have not run into a single person who opposes this plan,” said Councilor Brad Fox, who lives in the Brick Hill neighborhood. “Most are very enthusiastic about it. Most think the mix of market rate apartments with the (affordable) housing will be real positive thing for this city.”

Landscape architect Patrick Carroll said the units will be built over a period of five years. However, before that can happen, the Risbaras need a zoning change. The entire Brick Hill development is a conditional zoning plot limited to 300 residential units. To get 120 units in 10 buildings on what was originally called Lot 4, Risbara Brothers needs the council to enact a zoning change to bump that limit up to 335 units.

The council was unanimous at Monday’s workshop in support of that change, as soon as it can comes before them at a regular council meeting.

Market rate units, especially one-bedroom apartments that might go to young professionals, retirees or unmarried couples, are viewed, some councilors admitted, as the most desirable of all, at least from the city’s point of view.

“Condos and apartments tend to impact school systems less. That’s the dirty little secret,” Morgan said. “And towns love condos because they have their own services, they haul their own trash and yet they pay the same taxes.”

The only opposition was from Councilor Maxine Beecher, and then only due to the Berman connection.

“I was around for the Richard Berman story. Yeah, we all know there’s a Richard Berman story.” she said, noting that she was on the council when the Brick Hill plan first came around. “It was sold to the council with the idea that it would be more affordable than it was, that it would be low income, subsidized. But guess what? It ain’t ever happened. So, if I’m at all hesitant, it’s because of that.”

The only other potential stumbling blocks over the development plan are water and gardens.

Mayor Tom Blake said the area is known to harbor low water pressure. The fire department was the one city service to suggest a negative impact from the development, saying a water study is needed to determine if it will be able to fight a fire effectively in the area after 120 housing units are added.

However, City Manager Jim Gailey said if more water pressure is needed, it will be up to Risbara Brothers to provide it.

“We do not typically go in and extend water mains for developments like this. So, I don’t see the city having any cost share into any extension or upgrades of water mains in this area that might be needed.”

Some councilors raised the question of a community garden. Carroll said most of the development is on sloped area unsuitable to gardening. One finger of land near Westbrook Street that was targeted for community gardens in the original 2006 plan never came about, Gailey said, because of opposition from Portland Pipe Line.

“They have a transmission line running under there and they were unwilling to have any fixtures like raised garden beds put on top of their pipeline just in case they ever need to get in there,” he said.

Still, most of the council was green-flag-go for the development, even if one audience member was not. Fox said the building site is now barren land that will look better with townhouses peppering the landscape, while Carroll said the homes there “will have a great view of the jetport.” Even so, Mussey Street resident Greg Lewis was dubious.

“I’d much prefer, if we were going to add housing to this city, that it be done in a block of apartments, more so than filling in every scrap of land that’s left with a blade of grass on it in this town,” he said. “We can’t grow forever. At some point, enough has to be enough. Some of this in-fill development is just developers developing for the sake of development, because that’s what they do. But there’s not necessarily a God-given right that you have to develop just because you feel like it, because you can turn a dollar around on it.”

Lewis also stumped for affordable housing as the best course for whatever development occurs. But Blake said the council has no power to compel that kind of thing, even if that was what a majority of its members wanted.

“We do not have any requirements,” he said. “We’re looking at that, but we’re not there. So, we’re at the mercy of developers to provide affordable (housing). But I think this fits. I think it’s a nice plan for the neighborhood.”

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