2016-11-04 / Front Page

Council mulls O’Neil Street plans

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


A Bing satellite shot of South Portland’s current pubic works complex on O’Neil Street shows the surrounding residential streets. With a new facility on Highland Avenue expected to be complete by next summer, the city council will create a special committee at its Nov. 7 meeting to brainstorm different ways of redeveloping the property. (Courtesy photo) A Bing satellite shot of South Portland’s current pubic works complex on O’Neil Street shows the surrounding residential streets. With a new facility on Highland Avenue expected to be complete by next summer, the city council will create a special committee at its Nov. 7 meeting to brainstorm different ways of redeveloping the property. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — With a new $15.7 million public service complex due to open early next summer, the South Portland City Council is weighing what to do with the current 6-acre site on O’Neil Street.

At its most recent workshop on Oct. 24, the council agreed to create an ad-hoc committee that will consider options and present a list of three to four of them to the full council. Formal creation of that committee is expected to come at the council’s Nov. 7 meeting. Barring any course correction before that meeting, the committee will likely consist of seven members, including Councilor Patti Smith, who represents District 2, including the Meetinghouse Hill neighborhoods in which the current public works facility is nestled.

“The citizens (of District 2) are the most important people to listen to,” Smith said, noting the impact and decision by the council will have on the surrounding community.

Still, District 1 Councilor Claude Morgan issued a general call for ideas, to both residents and developers.

“Developers, tell us what you can do, tell us what you see,” he said. “Neighbors, tell us what you see when you’re here, looking at this area.”

Once created, most seats on the new committee will likely go to those with expertise that goes beyond merely living near the facility.

“We recommend the members of the project team have experience with land use planning, housing development, engineering, architecture, sustainability, open space, etc.” interim City Manager Don Gerrish said in an Oct. 24 memo to the council, adding the committee should also include “one or two community members, at least one of whom should be a resident of the Meetinghouse Hill neighborhood.” “This planning process should be open and transparent, including community meetings at which the project team will provide updates, and solicit feedback from the neighborhood and city residents,” Gerrish said.

An environmental assessment of the public works facility prepared last year by the city’s contracted engineering firm, Sebago Technics, came back clean, making it likely the site can be developed with residential housing when the city does moves into the new public services garage off Highland Avenue.

“Most all of the numbers were below what you would expect to see for urban lands, even around the fuel tanks, where we had no hits at all in terms of any contamination,” said Sebago vice president of engineering, Owens McCullough, at the time.

According to McCollough’ report, lead was found in groundwater sampled from one location on the property at 440 parts per billion, well above the generally acceptable 20 ppb. However, private wells will not be allowed at any homes that might be built on the site. Those would be served by the city’s public water system.

Although final clearance still must be granted by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the site “is a likely candidate for residential (unrestricted) development,” Gerrish said.

The O’Neil Street site has housed public works operations since at least the 1930. That was the year of a newspaper article unearthed by former city manager Jim Gailey in 2012, when the city began work on a $14 million bond package for the new Highland Avenue complex. That borrowing plan was approved by voters in November 2013. The city ended up borrowing $12.7 million in a municipal bond sale completed this past summer, in which it scored a 2.05 percent interest rate over the 20-year life of the loan. Expected to open in September 2017, the new facility at 929 Highland Ave. will bring the city’s public works, parks and recreation, and transportation departments under one 70,000-squarefoot roof.

The 1930 article found by Gailey referred to the city’s then new public works garage on O’Neil Street as a stateof the-art facility. That assessment was not surprising, Gailey said at the time, given that some sections of the site have been dated to the 19th century, well before the advent of the automobile, when real horse power was used to clear and maintain city streets.

The city has long mulled what to do with the O’Neil Street site, which generated increasing complaints of noise from neighbors, as surrounding residential development crept up on the property over the years. In 2013, the city released plans showing proposed redevelopment, in configurations of 15 single-family lots, 23 condo units and 52 town house units.

A key question for the new committee, now as it was then, will be whether abutters want O’Neil Street to remain a dead end or built though, creating a connection to Pitt Street, and if they’d rather see housing lots created of similar density to the surrounding neighborhoods, or something that includes more open space.

The property is assessed by the city at $1.4 million. In talks on potential re-use of the site, previous councils have expressed a preference for selling the property, rather than attempting to act as developer of the site. However, that consideration, as well as whether any units to be built there should be market rate or include all or some spaces reserved for low-income housing, will be issues for the committee to tackle. The 2013 concept sketches drawn up by the city included cul-de-sac configurations for as many as 15 single-family lots, 23 condo units, or 52 townhouse units.

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