2017-05-12 / Front Page

Knightville housing project knocked by neighbors

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


C Street resident Susanne Conley speaks out against a proposed 48-unit, four story housing complex to be built at 51 Ocean St. by the South Portland Housing Authority, during a public meeting held Tuesday, May 9, at the SPHA offices at 100 Waterman Drive. About 75 people, almost unanimously opposed to the size of the project, attended the session. (Duke Harrington photo) C Street resident Susanne Conley speaks out against a proposed 48-unit, four story housing complex to be built at 51 Ocean St. by the South Portland Housing Authority, during a public meeting held Tuesday, May 9, at the SPHA offices at 100 Waterman Drive. About 75 people, almost unanimously opposed to the size of the project, attended the session. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — If the South Portland Housing Authority truly wanted public feedback at a neighborhood meeting called to discuss its proposal for a 48-unit, five-story housing complex to be built at 51 Ocean St., it got its wish, and then some.

More than 75 people packed into a conference room in authority offices at 100 Waterman Drive on Tuesday, May 9, to see design plans for the project and pose questions. Although many in the audience acknowledged a need for more housing in South Portland, including in their own Knightville neighborhood, the crowd was almost universally opposed to the size of the building, which will require a zoning change before it can happen.


The former Martin’s Point Health Care medical office at 51 Ocean Street in South Portland, now under contract by the South Portland Housing Authority after being on the market for $1.8 million, is the site of a proposed 48-unit, four story housing complex which has drawn a sharp rebuke from nearby residents who complain the “industrial-sized” project does not fit into the historic Knightville neighborhood. (Duke Harrington photo) The former Martin’s Point Health Care medical office at 51 Ocean Street in South Portland, now under contract by the South Portland Housing Authority after being on the market for $1.8 million, is the site of a proposed 48-unit, four story housing complex which has drawn a sharp rebuke from nearby residents who complain the “industrial-sized” project does not fit into the historic Knightville neighborhood. (Duke Harrington photo) It might not be fair to describe the 90-minute session as heated. Still, speakers were interrupted on several occasions, prompting calls for courtesy from some attendees. boisterous The crowd grew especially when it was suggested a motivating factor in their opposition was an unwillingness to accommodate low-income renters.

“I never even thought about the affordable housing piece. That doesn’t bother me a bit. And I’m fine with building new buildings. It’s the height,” said Amy Callahan, who owns a building on B Street. “I am completely overwhelmed by the size of the building that’s proposed. My building is two and a half stories, directly across the street, and it will be completely dwarfed.”

“I don’t think anybody here is objecting to income levels in terms of the inhabitants,” said E Street resident Dan Hogan. “We’re objecting to mass. Personally, I don’t even care about height. But you’ve got height, and mass, and cars, and that just doesn’t fit.”

“It’s not the not-in-my-back-yard thing. I’m just sort of amazed that the scale of it went so huge, so fast, without really looking at how it would fit. That’s what I’m concerned about,” said C Street resident Eva Goetz. “We’re good people. We want to help. But we like the village feel.”

“No one wants this,” C Street resident Susanne Conley said. “Do we need housing? Absolutely. This is a beautiful concept, a beautiful building, but in this area, it does not fit. That’s why we’re here.”

“The streets in Knightville were laid out in 1866,” said B Street resident Caroline Hendry. “They are small streets. They were not made for the automobile. I think you are trying to fit something really, really big in a place that’s very tightly developed. I can’t possibly see how you could fit a building that size in this area comfortably for everybody.”

“And if you put shops on the first floor, that’s going to be even more people coming in who need a place to park,” Hendry added. “So, all of the people who have been complaining there are not enough places to park now, will really be complaining.”

Conley backed up that concern, questioning housing authority plans to only include 48 parking spots for 48 living units in the proposal. In one design concept, the building would actually go over the groundlevel parking lot.

“Most couples have two vehicles,” she said. “Where are all the other vehicles going to go? And then we’re talking a lot of flow of traffic, way too much.”

Meanwhile, a number of residents took umbrage with the fact that, to accommodate the planned 55-foot height of its proposal, South Portland Housing Authority will need to obtain a zoning change from the city council. According to city Planner Tex Hauser, the lone city hall staffer at the meeting, buildings in Knightville are currently capped at 50 feet, while the halfacre parcel could currently contain no more than 13 living units. The housing authority office building required a similar zoning change to accommodate its constriction when it was built in 2008. It did not move in until 2011.

“I think there is still so much bad feeling about what happened with this very building, where it was zoned one way and then it got pushed down a lot of people’s throats,” Goetz said. “So, you’re dealing with people and living in an area where it’s hard to trust.”

And, although authority Executive Director Michael Hulsey and Occupancy Specialist Sandra Warren said the concept was designed in consultation with Haeuser and other city officials to meet standards laid out in South Portland’s comprehensive plan, at least one person came armed with the language in that document, saying the actual plan is at odds with the authority proposal.

“The plan encourages development along the current village commercial district requirements,” said Deake Street resident Natalie West. “It says the current district. It doesn’t say we can re-zone it into something else. And it specifically says multi-story mixed-use buildings means three story buildings located close to the sidewalk with parking in the rear. It doesn’t say parking underneath. It’s just perfectly clear. There’s nothing to even debate about.

“I feel sorry for you that you went into the city and someone in city hall told you you could spend money on building these kinds of plans and doing these drawings that are inconsistent with the comprehensive plan. I see it as an open-and-shut thing – either you go back to the drawing board or you look for some other spot,” West said, drawing a round of applause.

Others faulted the city, represented in the crowd by city councilors Susan Henderson and Brad Fox. Mayor Patti Smith had wanted to attend the meeting, Henderson said, but had another engagement. Many liked having the former tenant, Martin’s Point Health Care, as a fixture in the neighborhood. Having a doctor’s office within easy walking distance helped enhance Knightville’s aura of a traditional New England village, they said. But when Martin’s Point encountered neighborhood pushback about relocating to the corner of Ocean and Sawyer streets, on the site now occupied by the city’s planning and development office, it decamped for Scarborough instead.

Since then, building owners Paul Natalizio and Anna Marie Delesanro-Beech, of Lexington, Massachusetts, put the 51 Ocean St. building on the market. South Portland Housing Authority now has it under contract for an undisclosed sum. Broker Jon Rizzo of CBRE The Boulos Company, said it was listed for $1.83 million. The most recent city assessment valued the property at $1.65 million.

Conley said it would be a shame to demolish the former Martin’s Point building, given the roughly $40,000 cost of doing so to a structure that’s 17 years old.

Meanwhile, Ocean Street resident Ed Millett said he had considered a housing project at the spot that now hosts Foulmouthed Brewing, but was convinced by then assistant city manager Jon Jennings, now city manager of Portland, that what Knightville really needed was a brew pub. Calling the current city hall building “decrepit,” Millett said what the city ought to do is bulldoze it and move into the 51 Ocean St. building.

Others said the property would be put to better use for small retail and artisan shops, while others said a more appropriate place for a large, affordable housing complex would be somewhere on the city’s west end, in Mill Creek, or even on property now occupied by the under-utilized oil storage tanks.

“I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but all these questions about other places and other possibilities avoid the fact that this is a property that is for sale, and some kind of change is going to take happen on this property,” Haeuser said.

However, A Street resident Troy Goodwin said a four-story building is planned for the corner that now houses The Griffin Club, which is scheduled to close in early June.

Meanwhile, another person who refused to give his name, who called the South Portland Housing Authority proposal “tone deaf” to the need of Knightville, suggested the current plan is only the opening salvo in a larger public negotiation.

“The strategy these guys have is let’s give them something so horrific, so that everybody is so scared, so that then it will be toned down,” he said.

If the project goes forward, the degree to which it houses low-income residents may be debatable. The structure would be built and managed by South Portland Housing Authority’s separate development corporation. Two of the three scenarios given at Tuesday’s meeting would include selling or renting space at market rates. That would be rents of $900 to $1,000 for a studio apartment, $1,200 to $1,400 per month for a one-bedroom, and $1,544 to $2,000 per month for a two-bedroom unit. Those same spaces would sell for upward of $155,000 (studio), $190,000 (onebedroom), or $330,000 (two bedroom).

The third option would lower rents by selling tax breaks to investors through the Maine Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. That would allow South Portland Housing Authority to fix rents at rates deemed affordable for those who earn between 60 percent and 120 percent of the area median income. Based on average household income in South Portland of $83,400, that would mean an income of $34,500 for one person, or $49,260 for a family of four.

That would fix rents in the building at between $770 and $920 per month for the one-bedroom units and between $924 and $1,108 for a two bedroom, although studio spaces would still go at a market rate of $911 per month.

South Portland Housing Authority has also recently proposed building a 28-unit building under affordable housing guidelines at 131 Sunset Ave. in South Portland’s Thornton Heights neighborhood. Hulsey said that project is separate from the one in Knightville and will proceed through the city’s planning board process on its own. That project, too, has received pushback from residents.

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