2017-06-23 / Front Page

Big turnout turns up nose at big development

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


South Portland City Planner Tex Haeuser points toward a condemned building on the grounds of the public works facility on O’Neil Street during a public tour of the facility, Tuesday, June 20. The site will be redeveloped once public works moves to a new complex on Highland Avenue this fall. (Duke Harrington photo) South Portland City Planner Tex Haeuser points toward a condemned building on the grounds of the public works facility on O’Neil Street during a public tour of the facility, Tuesday, June 20. The site will be redeveloped once public works moves to a new complex on Highland Avenue this fall. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — While South Portland’s Assistant City Manager Josh Reny doubled as a doorman Tuesday evening, holding open the front door of Brown Elementary School for nearby residents who gathered to brainstorm a future for the public works complex on O’Neil Street, one thing became abundantly clear.

“We’re going to need more chairs,” he said.

About 60 people toured the 6-acre O’Neil Street site – used by South Portland as home base for road maintenance operations since before the advent of motorized traffic. Those folks, plus another 25 or so, turned up at Brown School for a public forum led by an ad hoc committee created by the city council in March to recommend possibilities for the property.


South Richland Street resident Scott Ewing points to a spots on an aerial map of the South Portland Public Works facility on O’Neil Street during a pubic brainstorming session for possible future uses of the site after road and transportation crews move to a new complex on Highland Avenue this fall. About 75 people attended the event, held Tuesday, June 20, at Brown Elementary School, including Mayor Patti Smith, at lower right. (Duke Harrington photo) South Richland Street resident Scott Ewing points to a spots on an aerial map of the South Portland Public Works facility on O’Neil Street during a pubic brainstorming session for possible future uses of the site after road and transportation crews move to a new complex on Highland Avenue this fall. About 75 people attended the event, held Tuesday, June 20, at Brown Elementary School, including Mayor Patti Smith, at lower right. (Duke Harrington photo) 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 the 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 city staffers and all their heavy equipment will decamp to the new digs, abandoning the O’Neil Street site.

The city has long mulled what to do with the property, which was once semiisolated and now sits surrounded by residential homes that sprang up on all sides of it after World War II. During Tuesday’s site walk, City Planner Tex Haeuser noted that despite concerns over the long industrial use of the property, Phase I and II environmental assessments have come back clean, clearing the way for redevelopment. A VRAP (Voluntary Response Action Program) will be put in place for management of minor soils 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 conversion of 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.

“For the sake of the taxpayer, it would be nice if the city could at least break even on that investment. I think that is certainly the goal, anyway,” Haeuser said.

City officials say it is unlikely South Portland will develop the property itself. Instead, the probable scenario would involve selling the lot – 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 10-person ad hoc committee.

Still, it has been presumed that some form of residential housing is the most likely end fate of the property. Even before the 2013 bond vote, city hall released plans that showed proposed residential redevelopments in configurations of 15 single-family lots, 23 condo units and 52 townhouse units.

“What we are looking at tonight are not plans, they are only concepts – simply a starting point around which to build discussion,” said Laura Moorehead, an organizational consultant brought on to manage committee operations.

Those concepts were created at a May 25 committee meeting. At that session, the group worked with three architects and landscape designers – Craig Piper of SMRT Architects and Engineers, Kylie Mason of Sebago Technics and Curt Jensch of Maine Build Studio – all of whom donated their time.

Coming out of that session and presented to the public Tuesday were concepts for traditional housing subdivisions of between 12 and 22 homes, mixed-use plans that combine as many as seven single-family homes with 12 condo units and 10 units in a row, and a project built around the tiny home model.

For about 90 minutes, residents debated those ideas while kicking in comments and concerns of their own. The result, arrived at independently at 10 different tables, appeared to be a consensus for limited-scale housing – “appropriate” to the surrounding neighborhood, was the word used most often – along with lots of green space.

In fact, more that a few forum participants advocated for no new homes at all, instead championing a new public park or other outdoor recreation use.

“One pie-in-the-sky idea of our group was that the entire parcel be green space with a playground and trails,” said table leader Susan Chase. “Another was, which was very popular, was very low-density residential use, with a lot of green space.”

“Our group loved the idea of walking and biking trails,” said Catherine Nenyhart. “We also thought of inviting artists from the community to create sculptures.”

“We had a lot of support for maintaining actively used open space, with trails, community gardens and a public greenhouse,” Mayor Patti Smith said. “Another thing that was common: Not too many houses, maybe 18 to 23. People were concerned with density.”

“In ours, there was general agreement for green areas and play areas,” said Linden Thigpen. “We also were very concerned with having mixed use in the sense of different age groups and different levels of affordability, in order to maintain a community with people of a variety of backgrounds.”

“We had rather strong discussions and settled on a desire for density in the area to be maintained, with maybe condominiums or maybe townhouses, and maybe tiny houses,” Linda Boudreau said. “Our group also was very much in favor of a center commons space.”

“We went through all of the plans and, with a lot of people on our group living on Walnut Street, it was really important to maintain a buffer between the existing homes,” Sara Zografos said. “We also like the idea of having any road be kind of curved and not a straight shot through, with trails and gardens.”

“Our group had two questions – what is the potential of donating the entire site to the South Portland Land Trust, and what is the potential cost to the taxpayer to turn the site into a public park,” Harold Spetla asked.

“The big thing at our table not already said was definitely energy driven, the idea that we could make this site a model for the community in terms of a net-zero concept,” Piper said. “Other comments were to limit traffic, limit building height and to not let the developer control the project.”

Still, Haeuser cautioned that developers will have to have some say in what happens. Trying to hamstring them too much could be as bad as allowing free rein, he said.

“We won’t get any developers bidding if it’s the kind of program on which they just can’t make any money,” Haeuser said.

Meanwhile, despite overwhelming calls for green space, not everyone was enthused by that idea, if it acts as magnet to the neighborhood.

“I do not want a community garden across from my front lawn,” said Pitt Street resident Gwendolyn Roberts. “As green space, I’d prefer it stay more like it is now. I’ve very concerned about more traffic the street or people parking on the side of the street up and down the road. I’ve owned my house for 45 years and I want the property value to go up, not down.”

Moorehead said the committee was slated to meet on Thursday to “debrief” on all of the ideas presented. It will then present results to the city council for a workshop. Smith said that workshop will probably take place in August, based on the council schedule.

After that, the committee will narrow the list of ideas to recommendations to the council, and conduct a second pubic forum on those ideas, before final council action.

“The final decision will come down to all of you and what feels right for the neighborhood, and may lead the city to new ways it thinks about development in the future,” Moorehead said.

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