2017-04-07 / Front Page

Sky’s the limit in South Portland

Planning board endorses zoning district that would allow for 14-story buildings
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

South Portland Planning Board member Isaac Misiuk addresses his peers from the podium after being recused from voting on affordable housing measures at an April 4 meeting, because he works for the South Portland Housing Authority. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland Planning Board member Isaac Misiuk addresses his peers from the podium after being recused from voting on affordable housing measures at an April 4 meeting, because he works for the South Portland Housing Authority. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — The stage has been set for construction of an apartment building in the Maine Mall area that would be the third tallest building in the state.

At its meeting on Tuesday, April 4, the South Portland Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend passage by the city council of zoning changes that would extend the “suburban commercial” (CS) district on the city’s west end. If adopted, the new zone would eliminate residential density limits and allow construction of apartment buildings up to 156 feet tall. Allowing for clearance for the top of an elevator shaft, that would be enough for 14 stories of housing.

Listening to comment on proposed affordable housing measures during an April 4 meeting are, from left, South Portland Planning Board members Adrian Dowling and Linda Boudreau, Community Planner Steve Pulio, and city Planning Director Tex Haeuser. (Duke Harrington photo) Listening to comment on proposed affordable housing measures during an April 4 meeting are, from left, South Portland Planning Board members Adrian Dowling and Linda Boudreau, Community Planner Steve Pulio, and city Planning Director Tex Haeuser. (Duke Harrington photo) Any complex built to that height would eclipse the time and temperature building on Congress Street in Portland, constructed in 1926, by four feet. The only taller buildings in Maine would be Portland’s Back Bay Tower on Cumberland Avenue, built to 168 feet in 1980, and Franklin Tower, also on Cumberland, which was built in 1969 and stands at 175 feet.

The new zone is designed to combat the rise in city rents by clearing the way for a pair of development projects proposed for the city’s west end in the past year. Those projects, off Clark’s Pond Parkway, and at Sable Oaks golf course, would combine to create 550 new apartment units.

On Monday, the planning board also considered rules that would establish so-called inclusionary zoning, which would compel developers of large building projects to provide a set number of units at rates affordable to households earning the area median income, about $76,800 for a family of four, based on 2016 calculations by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Also on the table was creation of a housing trust fund to be used by city hall to create and retain a stock of affordable housing in South Portland.

However, while the planning board endorsed the new CS zone –which is now slated to go before the city council as soon as its next regular meeting, April 19 – it hedged on giving the nod just yet to the inclusionary zoning and housing trust fund ideas. Citing concern for unintended consequences of progressive rules modeled too closely on those of Portland, the board decided instead to conduct a workshop on those two renter affordable housing goals.”

“I have some confidence in the council’s ability to sort these things out and pay attention to detail,” said board Chairman Kevin Carr.

The board then punted on the affordable housing proposals Haeuser described as designed to go as a package with the new CS zone.

As drafted by Haeuser, who admittedly aped Portland ordinances, the proposed inclusionary zoning rules would have required developers creating 20 or more dwelling units to offer 10 percent of the total units built at middle-income protection initiatives. After giving the concepts a thorough workshop vetting April 25, the ideas could then come back to a new public hearing before the planning board on May 9. If the ideas get a thumbs-up from the board, they would then go to the city council for additional tweaking and final adoption.

According to City Planner Tex Haeuser, the CS zone was originally created at Clark’s Pond to facilitate an elderly housing project that never got off the ground. Extending that zone, he said, “is a response by staff to find a good way to accommodate a couple of impending residential development projects” first proposed to his office last year, while also folding in aspects of the city’s recent drive to create more affordable housing in the city.

One of those projects calls for 250 apartments off Clark’s Pond Parkway next to Home Depot, while the other envisions “perhaps over 300 units” on “some of the vacant lots and portions of the golf course in Sable Oaks,” which is “considering a change in direction,” Haeuser said, noting that both projects would require zoning changes to go forward.

“There was consideration that they were (each) going to submit their own applications and, essentially, we said, why don’t you let the city proceed with a zone change that can accommodate you both,” Haeuser told the planning board Tuesday night. “And so these folks have patiently waited.”

The new CS zone drafted by Haeuser allowed for buildings 86 feet tall, but allowed them to grow as high as 156 feet with a “height-bonus” granted for construction of a set number of middle-income housing units.

However, the planning board elected to strike that link, ruling that its purview is best limited to how property is used, not who it serves.

“From a land use purpose, it doesn’t matter to me – whether it’s 86 feet or 156 feet – what’s inside it,” said board member Linda Boudreau.

Beyond that, however, Boudreau and her peers favored the CS zone changes.

“I think this makes a lot of sense,” Boudreau said. “There was a time when we thought people didn’t want to live in a commercial area, but I think times have changed. Even 10 years ago we couldn’t have imagined this, but I think it’s appropriate for this time and meets our need for housing.”

“I have been a proponent of eliminating the maximum density for all of our districts,” said board member Isaac Misiuk, who was chairman of the city’s ad hoc affordable housing committee.

Boudreau said that during a recent walk of the city’s Brick Hill neighborhood to meet with residents to discuss housing needs, the subject of high-rise buildings came up.

“They looked at us like we were freaks and said, well, why not,” she recalled. “It was then that it kind of dawned on me that this mentality that the development of single-family homes on the east end of the city, while it’s nice, is not what everybody needs or wants.

“Some of us have to get out of our old-fashioned ideas,” she said. “The world today of working people doesn’t demand yards to mow. They’re looking for public spaces and not necessarily so much private ownership like we saw in the last 50 to 60 years.”

Board member William Laidley said spurring residential development around the Maine Mall may help springboard long sought-after improvements for the area.

“A number of us over time made honest attempts to make the mall area more pedestrian friendly,” he said. “We were not successful. But maybe if these projects go forward, there will be enough pressure to make that happen.”

The board decided that when the CS zone gets to the city council, it will be up to that body to tie building height to its rates. Any developer who chose to not do that would have to pay a fee of $100,000 per unit that instead went at market rate. That fee would then be used to build up a housing trust fund, which the city could use, “for a wide range of activities for the promotion, retention and creation of an adequate supply of housing, particularly affordable housing.”

However, in offering the carrot instead of the stick, the inclusionary zoning rules would lower permit fees, lower the number of required parking spaces or offer other incentives in order to get developers to offer the lower rates on rents.

“In theory this is all wonderful, but when I read the details it falls apart for me,” Boudreau said, calling the guidelines for how property owners would qualify residents for and assign lower rents, “invasive and cumbersome.”

Boudreau predicted managing the affordable housing guidelines would mean creating at least one position in city hall to manage that mandate, as the proposal calls on it to “make the final determination whether or not a potential household is qualified, as well as the maximum allowable rental price, as determined in accordance with calculation parameters determined by the city.”

“That alone is not only a mouthful, it’s a huge job, and an intrusion into private business,” she said. “To mange this, in the selection of the appropriate families and verification (of incomes) will be a full-time job,” she said. “Portland has a ton of staff people. They may be overloaded with staff people. But we run a tight ship in the city of South Portland and I’m not sure if we want to add another staff person.”

Boudreau suggested that instead of using Portland as a model, South Portland might turn the other way and look to Cape Elizabeth, which also has inclusionary zoning provisions.

“It seems to me that we are a lot more similar to Cape Elizabeth than we are to Portland,” she said.

“I also wonder about the unintended consequences,” she said, predicting that sprawl might result if developers pile up projects of less than 20 units to avoid the affordable housing trigger. Setting the bar too high on requirements on affordable units also might drive up rents of the remaining market price apartments, she speculated, thus fueling the need for even more government action to require price limits.

“I agree,” Laidley said. “The intent is excellent, but the underlying processes are very, very difficult.”

Meanwhile, Laidley questioned the wisdom of creating a housing trust fund.

“I think it’s dangerous to have a slush fund like this floating around the city,” he said, citing the temptation that might exist to misuse or pilfer from that fund. “I don’t think its good at all. I have real problems with that, having a nice pile of money sitting out there.”

The board voted unanimously to postpone a decision on the trust fund and inclusionary zoning rules pending an additional workshop. Misiuk however, is not likely to be a part of that discussion. At Tuesday’s meeting, the board voted 3-2 to recuse him from voting because he works for the South Portland Housing Authority, which is in the business of providing affordable housing in the city.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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