2017-11-17 / Community

South Portland’s ‘The Hub’ set for move

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

During a Nov. 8 public meeting at Redbank Community Center, Jesse Thompson, left, from Kaplan Thompson Architects, and Matthew Peters, vice president of real estate services for Avesta Housing, unveil plans for an affordable housing project of up to 130 units, slated for Westbrook Street, where Le Variety and The Hub neighborhood resource center is now located. (Adrian Dowling courtesy photo) During a Nov. 8 public meeting at Redbank Community Center, Jesse Thompson, left, from Kaplan Thompson Architects, and Matthew Peters, vice president of real estate services for Avesta Housing, unveil plans for an affordable housing project of up to 130 units, slated for Westbrook Street, where Le Variety and The Hub neighborhood resource center is now located. (Adrian Dowling courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — The west end resource center that serves as a clearing house for a range of social services targeted at some of South Portland’s neediest residents is slated for a move to new digs.

City councilors voiced unanimous support for the project at a Nov. 6 workshop and are expected to sign a deal with Avesta Housing that commits the city to move the center, known as The Hub, from a trailer parked at 586 Westbrook St., to a new affordable housing complex Avesta plans to build in cooperation with Le Variety owner Quang Nguyen in its place, at 600 Westbrook St.

“I like what I’ve seen so far, and I’m pleased that Avesta and Kaplan Thompson Architects have been proactive in gathering input from the residents of the neighborhood,” said Adrian Dowling, newly elected to the city council to represent West End District 5, following a neighborhood meeting on the project Nov. 8. “This project, a partnership between a private business owner, a nonprofit organization and the city, could become a model for other Maine communities that are trying to address the problem of unaffordable housing.”

The project already has a couple votes to its credit, making it possible to get to this point, including one some have cited as the crowning achievement in the single-term tenure of Councilor Brad Fox.

The first domino leading up to the new project dropped more than a year ago, when the council authorized creation of a West End Master Plan. The West End is best known for the Maine Mall, jetport and its various hotels, including the Marriott at Sable Oaks. Often overlooked are the postwar neighborhoods nestled between these commercial centers and South Portland’s older neighborhoods, from Thornton Heights east to Ferry Village. This area, which includes the Redbank and Brick Hill communities, is home to nearly 3,000 residents. Of those, more than 90 percent are renters, while a large percentage are recent immigrants and others for whom English is a second, or even third language.

The West End Master Plan, created by the the Greater Portland Council of Governments for $30,000 – half of the which came from the city’s 2016 Capital Improvements Program budget, the other half from a federal Community Development Block Grant award – envisions a transformation of South Portland’s newer neighborhoods into forms more akin to its older parts. Among the plan’s key recommendations, it suggests a need for “neighborhood connectivity and regional access,” urges the development of new “neighborhood core” areas with a mixed-use of affordable housing and retail shops, stumps for creation of a new tax increment financing (TIF) district designed to jump-start construction of more low-cost rental units, seeks new zoning rules “to improve and simplify the hodgepodge of existing zones,” and champions the creation of new recreation and open space amenities.

After getting an introduction to the completed plan at an Aug. 14 workshop, the city council fast tracked acceptance of the the 69-page document, doing so unanimously at its Aug. 21 business meeting. Then, in September, following a unanimous nod from the planning board, the council voted in a series of zoning changes recommended by the plan, which included collapsing a jigsaw of eight zoning districts – including one created just months ago – down to four.

“The time has come,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said at the time. “The city is now paying attention to an area of the city that has long been lost.”

Councilor Claude Morgan, meanwhile, credited the change to Fox, who represents West End District 5 but chose not to run for re-election this year, calling it a “plume in (his) hat.”

“You’ve done a lot of work for District 5, getting us focused correctly,” Morgan told Fox. “If that is your legacy, it is an honorable legacy. I commend you and I’m really proud of the work you did on this particular (zoning) amendment. It’s really a great project.”

“You’ve read about it, you’ve heard about it. We’re all excited about it. Let’s do it,” Fox said.

In addition to the zoning changes, which sets new building heights and largely lift caps on allowed residential units per acre, the master plan touted transformation of “the triangle,” an area bounded by Westbrook Street and Devereaux Circle East, where Le Variety is located, into a neighborhood center with indoor and outdoor public spaces.

Le Variety owner Quang Nguyen was hip to that idea even before the plan was approved, or the zoning change implemented, meeting with assistant city manager Josh Reny as early as April about potential expansion plans. In July, Nguyen bought the quarter-acre vacant lot next to his store for $96,000. That purchase was made possible by help from the city council, which on June 5 approved use of the city’s revolving loan fund to facilitate the deal. Nguyen kicked in $10,000 toward the sale and agreed to pay back the city’s $86,000 share over 20 years, at 5 percent interest. At the time, Nguyen, who partnered with Avesta Housing on the project, had plans to combine the vacant lot with his own 0.66-acre property, and to construct a single building at the corner of Westbrook Street and Wermuth Road, with his store on the ground floor and 20 apartment units on the first and second.

Since then, subsequent zoning changes have allowed the concept to grow to two buildings separated by a plaza area, still with Le Variety on the ground floor, but now capped with up to 140 housing units, with parking moved from beside the building on Westbrook Street, to the rear, between the buildings and the homes that line Devereaux Circle and Colin Kelly Road. The idea is to take advantage of the new zoning to mimic a look more like South Portland’s historic Knightville district, rather than the typical modern development, with building pushed back from the road and separated from it by a sea of parked cars.

That plan, however, came with two hitches. One is that Nguyen rents a portion of his lot where the new building will go to the West End Neighborhood Resource Hub. The need to relocate the Hub, along with the possibility that it could find a permanent home within Nguyen’s development, was on the table at the time of the June loan.

The council was behind that idea at its Nov. 6 workshop, particularly given that the new home will more the double available space for The Hub, when adding common areas in the new building. The city is expected to get its loan to Nguyen back when Avesta secures funding from Maine State Housing Authority for the project and agreed in principle to a long-term lease to move the Hub into the new building.

“There are a lot of partners in this, a lot of really good actors, and everybody involved in this really got together and we all decided to focus on this one block because it is sort of the center of that huge neighborhood, with hundreds and hundreds of people living there,” Fox said.

However, surveyors have discovered the city’s right-of-way for Westbrook Street does not run exact to the current road. To facilitate the new building and keep it close to the sidewalk in accordance with the new zoning vision, Avesta has asked the city to sign over 0.7 acres to Nguyen.

“What we are trying to create here is more of a village feel, so we’re thinking about where the building might be placed,” Reny said. “If they are too far away from the road, if they’re not building to the sidewalk, they might have a weird look to the person walking on that sidewalk.”

That idea did not play with all members of the council, particularly District 1 Councilor Claude Morgan.

“I have some questions of whether it’s appropriate for the city to give up a portion of its right-of-way,” he said. “We have rights of way across lots of people’s property. This sort of opens up the door for a lot of people to now show up here and say, ‘Would you please get rid of your right-of-way across my property.”

Fox, meanwhile, stumped for the transfer, saying it was supported by city planning staff.

“This is the probably the most important project that’s ever happened in my neighborhood and I think we need to support it,” he said. “I’ve heard so much over these past three years I’ve been on the council that we need to support our city staff. I think now would be a good time to do that given that everyone in this neighborhood would like to see this happen.”

“I would love for the project to go forward, I just want to make sure we are doing the right thing,” Mayor Patti Smith said.

A vote on the proposed property transfer is expected at the next city council meeting, Monday, Nov. 20. Tyler Norod, a development officer for Avesta Housing, said his firm has to meet a mid-December deadline to apply for the state housing money, and the land transfer needs to be in place before then, so Avesta and Nguyen can show title to the land.

“We can do the project either way, but this just seemed like a win-win for everyone,” he said.

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