2017-06-30 / Front Page

Council backs limited building, lots of green

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Nobody knows yet exactly what will replace the public works facility on O’Neil Street in South Portland, but following a city council workshop Monday, June 26, it appears the vision of those who will make the final decision for the site is closely aligned to that of the folks who will have to live next door to it.

In November 2013, voters approved borrowing up to $14 million toward a new $15.7 million public services campus, to consolidate the city road crew with the public transportation and parks departments. Now under construction at 929 Highland Ave., that 70,000-square-foot building is on track to open this fall. When that happens, the O’Neil Street site, used by South Portland as home base for road maintenance operations since before the advent of motorized traffic, will become something new.

On Tuesday, June 20, about 80 people toured the 6-acre O’Neil Street site, then gathered at nearby Brown Elementary School to brainstorm redevelopment options.

Back in 2013, the city released drawings suggesting the property could host as many as 52 townhouse units. And, as recently a May 25 meeting of the newly formed 10-member O’Neil Street Facility Re-Use Planning Committee, ideas were floated for as many as 20 units, in a combination of homes, townhouses and condos.

At the June 26 forum, however, attendees expressed a strong preference for a limited number of small, single-family homes, with much of the acreage given over to open space and walking trails.

Of those who participated, 54 filled out the committee’s survey form. The top recommendation to the city council on 45 of those forms (83.3 percent) was to consider open space and trails, or even a public park. Other top nods were for a family and child friendly design to anything built there (61.1 percent), single-family housing only (59.3 percent), construction of affordable homes (57.4 percent), and owner-occupied homes (50 percent); 20.3 percent of respondents checked a preference for multi-family housing, while 11.1 percent sounded off in favor of rental units. Nearly that many, 9.3 percent, wrote in that the council should insist upon “green” energy efficient design standards for any new buildings put up on the property.

Three councilors were absent from Monday’s meeting. However, the four who attended the session said forum results largely mirrored what they plan to call for when the property is eventually sold.

“I have to be honest and say I’m not really for multi-family housing in there. I don’t think that quite fits,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher. “And I’m not interested in rental housing units. My interest would be in residential units. And certainly open space, with the inclusion of trail pieces.”

“My own personal preference is green space and housing, with socialization panned for,” said Councilor Sue Henderson.

That, she added, meant eschewing the usual private front lawn for a common green space at the center of any proposed development.

Henderson also said if the city retained ownership of the land, or else let it go cheaply, that might entice developers to go along with so-called inclusionary zoning rules coming down the pike that would mandate home sales kept to prices affordable to those making around 80 percent of the median area income.

Even when selling lots, the city could take steps to control market inflation, Henderson said.

“The deeds could be written so that when the houses are sold you can’t flip it and sell it for three times as much,” she said.

However, Councilor Linda Cohen said that a percentage of any sale is earmarked by city code to its “land bank,” used to purchase and conserve open spaces and environmentally sensitive areas. Per the ordinance 60 percent of net proceeds from any unimproved lands, or 30 percent of new proceeds from improved property must go into the land bank.

Cohen also said when city councilors pushed the 2013 bond for the new public services complex, they said some of the proceeds from any sale of the O’Neil Street site would go to pay down that debt.

“That was a promise I think the entire council made at the time,” she said.

Cohen added that she was not in favor of retaining any of the property in city hands, whether as a park or for other purposes, nor was she a fan of the city trying to market individual lots, rather than selling all or parts of the site to private developers.

“For me there’s no question that I don’t want to keep this property,” she said. “We’re not realtors. I don’t think we belong in the real estate business.”

However, Cohen did champion the idea favored by many forum participants, to encourage the construction of energy efficient “zero net energy” homes, as a concept that could serve as a model for future developments throughout the city.

“I think we have the possibility up there of doing something really unique,” she said.

Mayor Smith, who is council liaison to the re-use committee, said the direction of the committee and forum participants seemed in line with the vision of those councilors present at Monday’s meeting.

“It’s nice to get a gut check, to see if we are going in the right direction,” she said. “It’s nice to see that we all agree that there’s a neighborhood there and whatever goes in there, it needs to fit within the neighborhood.”

Asked by Smith how many different types of re-use options they’d like to see in the final committee recommendation, the councilors agreed they do not need to be inundated with design plans. Let the committee pare things down to its top two or three ideas, they said.

“I’m really happy to see the people getting involved up there,” Cohen said, praising the outreach efforts and inclusive process of the committee. “The committee is really doing all of the heavy lifting for the city council, because of all of the public input. The people who are the real stakeholders up there are all part of this process. So, I don’t think we have to rehash everything all over again.”

During the June 20 site walk, City Planner Tex Haeuser said 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 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 conversion of the site to residential use.

According to city engineer Owens McCullough, site cleanup costs have been estimated at $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, at the time.

The city has not yet had the property appraised. The land was valued for 2016 assessment purposes at $788,300.

According to Laura Moorehead, a facilitator for the re-use committee, the group will narrow the list of ideas to recommendations to the council, and conduct a second public forum on those concepts, before final council action. Assistant City Manager Josh Reny said Tuesday the next meeting of the re-use committee is slated for Thursday, July 27. The people who are the real stakeholders up there are all part of this process. So, I don’t think we have to rehash everything all over again.”

During the June 20 site walk, City Planner Tex Haeuser said 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 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 conversion of the site to residential use.

According to city engineer Owens McCullough, site cleanup costs have been estimated at $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, at the time.

The city has not yet had the property appraised. The land was valued for 2016 assessment purposes at $788,300.

According to Laura Moorehead, a facilitator for the re-use committee, the group will narrow the list of ideas to recommendations to the council, and conduct a second public forum on those concepts, before final council action. Assistant City Manager Josh Reny said Tuesday the next meeting of the re-use committee is slated for Thursday, July 27.

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