2016-07-29 / Front Page

Mill Creek Plan moves forward

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

The South Portland Planning Board unanimously approved new zoning rules for the city's Mill Creek shopping district, Tuesday, July 26, sending them on to the city council for final adoption. Still, some say the area will never reach its full potential until the Central Maine Power lines running through the area are removed. City Planner Tex Haeuser has said in the past the city has tried to broker an accord with CMP "on several occasions," to bury the lines, but the project has always proven to be "cost prohibitive." (Duke Harrington photo) The South Portland Planning Board unanimously approved new zoning rules for the city's Mill Creek shopping district, Tuesday, July 26, sending them on to the city council for final adoption. Still, some say the area will never reach its full potential until the Central Maine Power lines running through the area are removed. City Planner Tex Haeuser has said in the past the city has tried to broker an accord with CMP "on several occasions," to bury the lines, but the project has always proven to be "cost prohibitive." (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Following a public hearing Tuesday, July 26, the South Portland Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend to the city council that it enact a host of zoning changes designed to spur development in the Mill Creek shopping district.

The idea behind the changes, which spins out of a 114-page Mill Creek Master Plan adopted by the city council last year, and pubic “visioning sessions” going back at least six years before that, is to transform the area around what was the state’s first strip mall into a vibrant mix of residential homes and retail shops.

According to the most recent census data, fewer than 20 people now live in the area under review – a 31.6-acre expanse bounded by the Casco Bay Bridge, Broadway on one side and Ocean and E streets on the other.

The plan envisions the transformation of Mill Creek from a vast desert of pavement bordered by two big-box shopping centers and dotted with what one resident derided as “ranch-style” businesses, into a “highly walkable” mixed-use area of storefronts and walk-up apartments.

The proposed zoning amendments, if adopted, would split the area into three new zones – the Mill Creek Core District, Broadway Corridor District and Village Extension District.

The new zones would have no density limits on human habitation and would allow for taller buildings as high as 75 feet, or five stories, in the Mill Creek Core District, centered around the current shopping plazas.

The Village Extension Zone, which includes an area around Legion Square as well as the Pratt Abbott lot at the corner of Broadway and Cottage Road, would allow buildings as high as 60 feet, or five stories, with limits of 45 feet or four stories on Broadway, and 40 feet or three stories within 50 feet of E Street.

The Broadway Corridor zone, which includes the ocean-side strip of Broadway between Waterman Drive and Ocean Street, would allow buildings as high as 50 feet, or four stories, while also removing most restrictions now in place for drive-thru windows at restaurants.

Developers within both the Broadway Corridor and Village Extension District would be held to a host of design standards intended to make any new construction match to a great extent what is already on the ground.

However, developers would potentially have much greater rein in the Mill Creek Core District. There, builders could bypass design standards and instead pursue a so-called “planned development.” With planning board approval, applicants could propose and get through any number of modifications to the city’s basic development and design standards, as well as off-street parking rules. The only limitation is that any new idea would still have to meet the basic objectives of the Mill Creek Master Plan, which include demonstrating that any new construction will enhance a new pedestrian focus for the area, that it delivers a “clear identity, attractive gateways, [and] high-quality visual environment” for the neighborhood, that it make Mill Creek “greener,” physically and environmentally, that any new construction “transitions” into the neighboring Knightville district, and that it minimize potential impacts from flooding and storms associated with sea level rise.

“This essentially creates two sets of development standards and gives the developer the option of which set they want to proceed under,” said Mark Eyerman, president of Portland consulting firm Planning Decisions, who introduced the amendments to the board.

The hope is that the new zones will help replicate the recent resurgence of Knightville by crafting zoning rules that somewhat mimics the look and feel of the Old Port section of Portland, located almost directly across the Fore River, while also creating a “genuine neighborhood feel.”

Mill Creek is not one of South Portland’s original villages. Early on, it was part of Knightville that developed its own identity starting in 1955 when the Mill Creek Shopping Plaza was built. That closely followed the 1951 construction of Shaw’s Supermarket, resulting in Maine’s first strip mall. While that was an economic boon to the city at the time, leading a car-centric revolution that eventually resulted in construction of the Maine Mall on the opposite side of South Portland, it was soon seen as something far less impressive. According to Mayor Tom Blake, nearby Mill Creek Park was originally called Hinckley Park – note the adjacent Hinckley Street. However, that name was given to another park and the official designation changed to Mill Creek Park only in an attempt to “dress up” the shopping area.

“Even by the 1970s, it was faded and worn,” he said. “I avoid going to Mill Creek if I possibly can, just because it’s so unappealing.”

In large part, the new plan was driven by residents, business owners and city staff engaged three years ago, during meetings hosted by Sustain Southern Maine.

In 2010, the Greater Portland Council of Governments won a $1.6 million Sustainable Communities Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under the motto, “By choice not by chance,” Sustain Southern Maine was created and has been busy ever since trying to help a swath of the state from Brunswick to Kittery find ways to “absorb significant shares of most kinds of growth” through the next 25 years.”

That effort led to the selection of 10 pilot projects, dubbed “learning laboratories,” among them South Portland’s Mill Creek area.

In a greater Portland transportation study that fueled the Sustain Southern Maine workshops, Charlie Colgan, a Maine School of Public Service professor who led the state’s Consensus Economic Forecasting Group from 1992 to 2011, predicted a 13.5 percent spike in private, nonfarm employment in southern Maine through 2035. That translates to between 3,000 and 3,500 new jobs in South Portland, largely in health care, social assistance (foreseen to grow 74.4 percent) and educational services (up 61.4 percent). That job growth is expected to bring up to 2,400 new households to South Portland, already Maine’s fourth-largest city.

The initial idea of the Sustain Southern Maine study was to target 10 percent of the growth South Portland is expected to experience by 2035 into the Mill Creek area, and to encourage residential development in what is now a sea of paved parking areas interrupted by islands of retail shops.

However, that meant finding a way to accommodate up to 175,000-square-feet of additional commercial space, as well as 240 housing units and 300 local jobs.

The Mill Creek Master Plan plan, crafted by the city’s comprehensive plan implementation committee, looks to do that, and the new zoning proposal is the first practical application of those goals.

“It’s going to allow developers to not be bound by these old, arbitrary standards that were developed in the ’50s and ’60s,” said Bridgeway Restaurant owner Phil Notis, a proponent of the plan.

But more than merely accommodating future growth, the zoning change is seen by some as a way to help solve the city’s burgeoning affordable housing crisis.

Isaac Misiuk, a planning board member who chaired the city’s ad hoc affordable housing task force, which is expected to present its final recommendations to the city council next month, said spurring construction of residential units in the Mill Creek area should create a temporary supply glut that will help drive down rents.

“I’m excited because this took what we has hoped for (on the task force) and is already starting to implement it,” he said.

However, not everyone on the board was copacetic with a housing density free-for-all promised by the plan, including board Chairman William Laidley.

“More density means more tax revenue and that’s OK, but how you spend that tax revenue is the key, and, unfortunately, I’ve seen this city spend tax revenue in ways I did not agree with,” he said.

Adding that he voted for the plan “only reluctantly,” Laidley cautioned that any increase in residential ratio in Mill Creek will necessarily impact city infrastructure needs, including fire, police, schools and roads.

“You have to understand, nothing comes for free,” he said. “Everything comes with a cost, and sometimes city fathers don’t want to see that.”

The new zoning rules now on their way to the city council also include a number of related edits, including removal of a ban on first-floor residences on multi-story, mixed-use buildings.

Deake Street resident Natalie West pointed out that Knightville, as successful as its resurgence has been, has yet to hit a “tipping point” triggering an Old Portlike festival of retail shops. With a ban on ground-floor residences, many shop windows on Ocean Street have become home to offices, with facades clearly built with window-shopping in mind now closed off behind drawn blinds.

West proposed a change that would support the city’s current home occupation rules by allowing people to live in first floor units, if maintaining a business of some kind on the street side of the unit.

The planning board readily adopted that idea, as well as a suggestion by Caroline Hendry, a resident of B Street and a former board member, to adopt new lighting standards for buildings and parking lots citywide.

“These allow enough light for safety, for being able to see, but really avoid the dazzle you sometimes see in commercial installations,” Eyerman said.

“The concern about lighting was shared by the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee, so that’s why we created lighting standards not just for Mill Creek but for the city as a whole,” said City Planner Tex Haeuser.

Other amendments would let the planning board reduce the number of parking spaces needed in the Village Extension and Mill Creek Core districts, “if an applicant can show reduced parking is adequate based on parking demand studies and in consideration of transit or other alternative transportation services.” The changes also increase the maximum distance offsite parking can be from an associated building from 300 feet for residential buildings and 500 feet for commercial projects, to 1,500 feet, in both cases.

Despite enthusiasm for the new zoning plan expressed by most planning board members, some in the audience mirrored Laidely’s trepidation.

“I think what’s hard about this is when you’re looking at ordinances, you’re not getting a real feeling for what a place will actually look like if everything is put in place like it says in the ordinance. It takes some imagination,” Hendry said.

She also predicted no real change will come to Mill Creek until the CMP transmission lines though the area, which she called, “those unsightly Eiffel towers,” are removed.

“They’re so unsightly,” she said. “The streets have been dug up a zillion times, but they still remain. They

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