2017-06-02 / Front Page

City garage redevelopment seen as model for the future

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — An ongoing project to remake the current public works facility on O’Neil Street, once road and transportation crews decamp to new digs on Highland Avenue, is seen as more than a chance to revitalize a neighborhood — it could become a model for redevelopment across South Portland.

The O’Neil Street complex has housed public works operations since the 19th century, when real horsepower was used to clear and maintain city streets. When the current city garage there was built in 1930, a newspaper article described the building as a “state-of-the-art facility,” and it was at the time, but the city quickly outgrew the site, which seemed out of place by the 1950s, as residential housing developments sprouted up on all sides of the 6-acre site.

In November 2013, voters approved borrowing up to $14 million to build a new public services campus, which will consolidate the city road crew with public transportation, and parks departments under one roof at 929 Highland Ave. That 70,000-square-foot building is on track to open this fall, at which time public works crews will decamp from their longtime home off Cottage Road, wedged between the Knightville/Mill Creek and Meetinghouse Hill neighborhoods.

The city has long mulled what to do with the O’Neil Street site. Even before the 2013 bond vote, it released plans showing proposed residential redevelopments in configurations of 15 single-family lots, 23 condo units and 52 town house units.

In March, with Phase I and II environmental assessments of the site in hand clearing the way for redevelopment, the city council created a 10-member ad hoc committee to recommend possibilities for the property. A Voluntary Response Action Program will be put in place for management of minor soil contamination from a century of heavy equipment use, but otherwise the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is not expected to throw up any roadblocks to converting the site to residential use.

According to city engineer Owens McCullough, site cleanup costs have been pegged at a “rough estimate” of $250,000, including building demolition and removal of underground fuel tanks. City Planner Tex Haeuser has said it is unlikely South Portland will rebuild the property itself. Instead, the probable scenario would involve selling the lot – currently assessed at $682,600 for the land alone – to a developer who would be bound in some fashion to a development plan adopted by the city council, based on recommendations of the committee.

On May 25, committee members gathered in council chambers at city hall to begin brainstorming ideas. Mayor Patti Smith, who represents the council on the committee, said the hope is to have a “robust, inclusive” process that will depend heavily on input from the public.

To that end, the committee has scheduled its first public forum on the topic for Tuesday, June 20. That session will start with a 30-minute tour of the property starting at 5:45 p.m. and follow at 6:30 p.m. with a visioning workshop.

Laura Moorehead, an organizational consultant brought on to manage committee operations, said all ideas for the property will be considered, including use as open space, a community building or business interest. However, at the May 25 meeting, the committee, along with participating members of the public broke into three groups, with three local architects who donated their time for the evening, to hammer our possible housing projects.

Those ideas, fleshed out afterward by the architects, will be presented at a June 20 meeting. However, Moorehead said they are by no means meant to convey the only potential directions.

“It’s helpful to have something as a starting point for the conversation, to give people something to comment on, but it’s really wide open for any idea anyone might like to bring up,” she said.

“The important thing to remember is that we are not predetermining what comes out of the public forum,” Haeuser said. “We just thought it would be helpful to present a few concepts to help generate ideas.”

Whatever comes from the public sessions and final committee report, the hope, committee members said, assuming residential housing is deemed the best use, is that it will serve as a guide for future development across South Portland.

“The committee and city council are hoping that a significant design can be created that may become a template for future development on the West Side of the city. So, we want to get the message out to all citizens that we’re interested in their ideas, and that they need to come to the June 20 site walk and gathering at Brown School to discuss options,” said committee member Linden Thigpen. “We want to get input from citizens with additional ideas, or likes and dislikes of the presented concepts.”

“The future of the city is going to include much more development, so it’s really important that we do this one well, and get the bones in place right,” Thigpen said.

The three concepts, as developed at the May 25 meeting, were, according to Moorehead, “just the tiniest starting point,” as the first committee run-through of putting ideas town on paper. The concepts developed included a traditional subdivision of between 12 and 22 homes, designed by Craig Piper of Portland-based SMRT Architects and Engineers, a mixed-use project laid out by Sebago Technics landscape architect Kylie Mason that combines seven single-family homes with 12 condo units and 10 units in a row house, and a project crafted by Curt Jensch of South Portland-based Maine Build Studio that centers on trendy tiny homes.

Although none of the layouts incorporated it into the design, the project could grow to 6.5 acres. Abutting property owner David Peary said that while he and his wife have made no final decision, they are entertaining the idea of selling a half-acre, either to the city, or to a developer, to be folded into the overall scheme.

The design created by the Piper-led group was designed to blend into surrounding neighborhoods, with moderate-sized, 1,800-square-foot, single-family homes on lots roughly 0.8-acres in size, placed on either side of a new road that would extend from the end of O’Neil Street to a new intersection at Pitt Street.

“Although there was some concern with the amount of traffic generated, even if this was to be a one-way street, it seems like it’d still be less than the current public works use,” Piper said.

The group, led by Mason, went the other way, encircling its housing units with a narrow road to run the perimeter of the site, with a large, communal park and community garden in the center of the property.

“We spent a lot of time talking about the benefit of dooryards and how children living in the area would be able to play and visit one another without any of them ever having to cross a street,” Mason said.

Jensch’s group envisioned between 28 and 32 homes, including a series of tiny homes of less than 500 square feet, each, clustered on one side of a common space, the another group of slightly bigger cottage homes on the other side and a series of condo units on the far end, opposite of a shared community building.

“As with all of the designs, we saw the slope on the east side of the property as a green space buffering the site from the surrounding homes, where there could be a walking trail, but we also thought some of the drainage there could be picked up and used as a sort of water feature,” Jensch said.

“I think one really great thing about all of the designs is that they work really hard to create a sense of family, and community,” Smith said. “It’s just a question of exactly how that’s achieved. I think a really interesting question is how people feel the neighbors will want to use green space – is it a common park space, or trails around, or trails through?”

Which of the plans moves forward, if any, will depend on feedback at the June 20 session.

FMI

South Portland residents and others interested parties are invited to take part in a work session, Tuesday, June 20, to help determine the future of the 6-acre public works facility on O’Neil Street, set to close this fall when road and transportation crews move to a new complex on Highland Avenue.

Schedule

5:45-6:15 p.m. — Site walk (meet at 33 Pitt St.)

6:30-8:30 p.m. — Public work session, Brown Elementary School

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