2017-12-01 / Front Page

Planners ponder Knightville parking

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The question over how to facilitate a need for more parking spots for a prospective Knightville business got placed in a rhetorical parking lot Monday, Nov. 27, with all on the South Portland City Council agreeing on the need for a second workshop.

Part of the issue was that, with the Dec. 4 inauguration so close at hand, two of the seven council spots will turn over before the issue comes up for a formal vote.

“I don’t know what we are even having this meeting for tonight,” said outgoing Councilor Brad Fox, who is slated to be replaced by Brick Hill resident Adrian Dowling.

The other concern was that, with the council always skittish about appearing to conduct actual votes in a workshop setting, the five councilors who will remain had no clear way to introduce and move on any parking fix ideas not already on the table.

“With the kind of weird, wishy-washy rules we have with workshops, I’m not really sure that staff knows what direction to go,” said Councilor Eben Rose.

What staff had brought forward was a proposal to amend city zoning rules governing the area in which noncommercial buildings can draw upon to meet off-street parking mandates. Currently, businesses may lease existing private parking spots within 1,500 feet of their property line. They may also count any public parking spots not already claimed by another business in its required tally within 500 feet. Planning Director Tex Haeuser asked the council to extend that to 1,500 feet, to match the private spot allowance.

The change, he said, was driven by a proposed development at 60 Ocean St., site of the former Griffin Club.

P&G Developers bought the 0.11-acre lot on June 5 for $620,000. The P&G principals, Penny Prior and Ginger Cote of Cape Elizabeth, have said they plan to raze the building, which dates to 1900, and replace it with a four-story structure, featuring a restaurant and tavern on the ground floor, slated to specialize in a menu of comfort-food, topped by five condominium units. The tavern will be called Big Babe’s and on Monday, Cote, the self-described namesake of the establishment – who is reportedly now moving forward with the project on her own – stressed that she is “not a developer.”

“I am a Maine grown gal from ‘The County,’ trying to open a good, neighborhood business,” said Cote, who plans to live in one of the new condo units. “I am trying to work with other businesses that have parking lots, to save some congestion, but that’s difficult.”

Under current zoning rules, a multi-family building must have 1.5 parking spaces for each unit that measures more than 800 square feet, while a restaurant requires one parking spot for every three employees, plus one spot for every four guest seats, with one additional parking space for every 100 feet of lounge area.

Those rules, Haeuser said, will leave Big Babe’s short 10 spots within the radius it now has to draw from.

“Sometimes these requirements match with market conditions, sometimes they don’t,” he said.

According to Haeuser, the city’s Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee met about a month ago to review possible zoning changes for Knightville. That meeting was sparked by public outcry to a South Portland Housing Authority proposal made just before Cote closed on her deal, to create a five-story, 48-unit affordable housing complex on the site of the former Martin’s Point Health Care building at 51 Ocean St. At the time, another prospective buyer of the Griffin Club building was floating plans for a similarlysized structure. Public objection to the zoning changes needed to facilitate either project killed them both, with many residents pointing to the building at 100 Waterman Drive, and citing a history of so-called “spot zoning” in South Portland, in which rules are allegedly edited on the fly to please developers and make certain projects happen.

Mussey Street resident Greg Lewis, husband of incoming councilor Kate Lewis, has been a frequent and vocal critic on that particular point over the past decade.

Franklin Terrace resident George Corey picked up that ball at Monday’s workshop.

“I think when somebody buys a piece of property, they buy it with the understanding of what the current zoning regulations are,” he said. “And if you want to buy a piece of property, you buy it and develop it under those rules. Only by chance might you expect a change in rules. There’s actually nothing in the comprehensive plan that indicates a 1,500 foot distance (for parking) should be considered.”

Although the charge of the committee was to look at possible zoning changes needed in a general sense to advance the stated goals of the city’s 2012 comprehensive plan, it did review plans for Big Babe’s.

The committee deemed an extension to 1,500 square feet for use of public parking to be “relatively minor and acceptable,” Haeuser said.

But P&G is not expected to make a formal application to the planning board with those plan until January, and that seemed to set Councilor Claude Morgan on edge.

“The conversation was about how to make this one particular business happen,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a conspiracy at play here, but this would tend to make other applicants wonder if this might be a backdoor in to city staff.”

About a dozen residents spoke at Monday’s meeting, and all expressed some level of support for the Big Babe’s project. However, many also voiced concern for how the business will impact on-street parking on nearby residential streets. Human nature being what it is, they said, most tavern patrons will park on those streets, in front of homes and possibly in front of driveways, rather than walk the 1,500 feet from public parking spots at city hall or on Waterman Drive, meant to be captured by the proposed zoning change. Morgan came down on both sides.

“I want Babe’s here. I want that on the record. I want to support you,” he told Cote. “The question is, to what length can I support you at the cost my constituents? That’s where I’m torn here.”

Like many in the audience, Morgan referenced historic parking problems in Willard Square, noting that when city councilors were first trying to spur development there to follow Scratch Baking Co. a decade ago, they let prospective businesses count public parking spots at Willard Beach.

“Nobody is waiting in a line for public parking down on the beach to get their bagels. They’re all circling (the square),” Morgan said. “And the illegal parking there doesn’t just impact the square, but four or five blocks out. The problem has not done away with the cacophony of activity around that square. It’s really gotten worse. There isn’t a year that goes by that I don’t have some sort of rapport with my constituents about correcting what we created there. A better solution is what I am still looking for there a decade later.

“Proximity is the rule,” Morgan said. “The people who are impacted most are folks on the residential streets. That’s where folks are going to find those 10 parking spaces, not on Waterman Avenue, or behind city hall, or at any other assignment. But one way of kicking the can down the road is to just keep increasing that radius. At some point, we may be saying, ‘Just demonstrate there are 15 (parking) spaces somewhere in South Portland, and there’s your permit.’ Of course, that’s ridiculous.”

Morgan also said that if Babe’s is allowed to count 10 public parking spots for its needs, those spots cannot also be counted by any other business, regardless of whether it sees most of its traffic during the day, or, as Babe’s is likely to, at night. Currently, there is a second development deal said to be in the pipeline for the former Martin’s Point building, as well as for the Bridgeway Restaurant, further up on Ocean Street.

“If we assign Babes 10 spots, what’s the person who is going to move into and develop the old Martin’s Point going to do?” Morgan asked. “We’ve just sucked all of the oxygen out of the air. There’s no wiggle room for what might happen there.”

Still, Councilor Susan Henderson was solidly behind the change, having participated in the comp plan implementation meeting.

“We researched this to death,” she said. “This is not a major zoning change. This is a tweak. It seems like a no-brainer.

“This is a person who wants to live in our neighborhood, who wants to have her business in our neighborhood, who is respecting our neighborhood, who is not coming into our neighborhood and destroying our neighborhood for the residents who live here by building high-rise houses in our front yards or our back yards,” Henderson said. “If we cannot accommodate something like this, we are going to sell out our neighborhoods to the big developer, because nobody else is going to want it.”

Henderson also suggested the city parking requirements are somewhat arbitrary anyway.

“You can’t mandate by rule how many people are going to like a business and control parking that way,” she said.

A number of councillors suggested making the proposed 1,500-foot extension apply only to Knightville, rather than citywide.

Rose also raised other possibilities, such as requiring parking stickers to use on-street spots on residential streets, and allowing daytime and nighttime businesses to effectively share off-street spots.

“I kind of hope there might be a little bit more of a creative way to go about solving some of these problems that are unique to Knightville and might not be expressed in the same way throughout the city,” he said. “My feeling is what is before us is kind of a blunt tool. The issues that have brought up by public comment can be dealt with a little more surgically, I think.”

However, Haeuser cast a dubious eye on Rose’s suggestions.

“To me, it makes more sense to be citywide, because if it’s reasonable for people to walk a certain distance in Knightville, it should be reasonable throughout the city as well,” he said. “I think we want to be a little bit careful about special rules for some places and not for others.”

Rose also suggested convening a forum for residents of the so-called letter streets that cross Ocean Street. However, while Haeuser said he did not object to that additional solicitation for public input, it was not a requirement to proceed.

“There’s nothing in the books about needing to have a neighborhood engagement process,” he said.

Mayor Patti Smith, meanwhile, said issues in Knightville are not new, and not going away. The area has been the subject of more debate over parking, and more studies on the subject, than any other part of the city, she said. The result has most often been findings that, despite whatever rules there may be for minimum off-street parking, not all of the spots actually on Ocean Street are getting used consistently.

“It’s been proven there is a fair amount of parking in Knightville,” she said.

And although Smith will no longer be on the council when the parking issue comes back for a second workshop, she suggested one ancillary bonus that might result from extending the allowance for use of public spots to meet zoning rules.

“Another benefit of going to 1,500 feet – we may get better sidewalks. Who doesn’t want that?” she said.

As to what may eventually happen, Smith said the current outlook is, “clear as mud.”

On that point, Councilor Maxine Beecher agreed.

“Clarity seems to not be in vogue right now,” she said.

Staff Writer Wm. Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com

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