2018-02-14 / Front Page

City council amenable to public housing pitch

Four-story, 42-unit complex would replace former St. John’s church

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — It would appear that in its third try at bat, the South Portland Housing Authority has hit, if not a home run, then at least a ground rule double – providing it can convince the city council to change the rules enough to legalize its pitch for a 42-unit affordable housing complex.

On Tuesday, Feb. 13, South Portland Housing Authority officials presented a plan that would see them purchase the 2.33-acre lot at 611 Main St. that is home to the former St. John the Evangelist Church, an associated Sunday school building, and adjoining pine grove. South Portland Housing Authority Director of Development Brooks More said during his presentation at a city council workshop that the housing authority has signed a purchase and sale agreement with the property owner, Massachusetts-based Cafua Management. 

More did not disclose how much the housing authority intends to spend on the property, except to say it is “more than $1 million.” 

The former Catholic church opened in 1940 to serve the Thornton Heights neighborhood that had grown up over the years largely in  support of the nearby Rigby Rail Yard, during a time when Route 1 through the neighborhood was the busiest road in the state. 

Originally, Thornton Heights was called Skunk Hill and boasted a gentrified air, despite the questionable moniker, with attractions including Rigby Park, one of the nation’s fastest horse-racing tracks, as well as the Portland Country Club, which set up a 12-hole golf course on the old Thornton Farm in 1897.

But the horse track fell on hard times after just eight years of operation, while the country club decamped to Falmouth. Soon, as the industrial revolution took root, Rigby Park became Rigby Yards. At one time, the rail yard employed nearly 1,800 people, fueling residential growth in the area that led to enlargement of Mount Calvary Chapel, from a parish for residents, established in 1926, to construction of St. John’s in 1940. 

Times changed again and the church closed due to declining attendance, holding its final Mass on Sept. 11, 2013. The lot sold in December 2013 to Cafua for $731,025 and the company planned to raze the buildings in favor of a Dunkin’ Donuts. 

That drew the ire of neighbors and after first floating an idea to lease Cafua the Sawyer Park property at the corner of Main and Westbrook street, the city council in May 2014 created the Main Street Community Commercial Zoning District around the area of the church. That new zone disallowed developments with drive through windows and effectively blocked Cafua’s project. The company later took over the former Wok Inn restaurant at 818 Main St. and put its new doughnut shop there. 

In early 2016, Cafua had a deal with Scarborough developer Kerry Anderson, who planned to retain the church as home to some unspecified commercial development, while bulldozing the school for a housing complex. But Kerry needed a zoning change to make the project financially feasible.

Former City Manager Jim Gailey said at the time that when the zone was created, the city council purposely left half of the church property in the Residential-A Zone. 

“Staff proposed the entire parcel (be) zoned with the Main Street Zone, but the council opted to keep the division the way it was and would require future proposals to seek a zone change,” Gailey wrote in a memo reviewing history of the parcel. “This allowed for the vetting of good and bad proposals and didn’t give an automatic zone for commercial activity to happen in.”

Anderson asked the council to put the entire church property in the Main Street Community Commercial Zoning District zone. That would have lifted a limit of no more than four housing units per acre for the acre still zoned residential, and allowed Anderson to create up to 24 living units per acre on that portion of the parcel he intended to develop. But for a second time, the council bowed to the wishes of neighbors and rejected zoning change, effectively killing the project.

Meanwhile, the housing authority encountered resistance of its own. In early 2017, it announced plans to build a 48-unit low-income housing complex at 51 Ocean St., a spot formerly by Martin’s Point Health Care until it left the city for Scarborough after the council, again reacting to local opposition, declined to entertain the medical office’s 2015 overture to buy and redevelop the former Hamlin School at the corner of Ocean and Sawyer streets, currently home to the city’s planning and development office. The Ocean Street plan met stiff opposition from neighbors, as did a concurrent plan to build 28 units in two buildings at 131 Sunset Ave. In both cases, residents complained the authority’s proposal was out-sized in comparison to surrounding homes, and would overwhelm the neighborhood with traffic local streets were ill-equipped to handle.

In both cases, the city council declined to make the zoning changes needed to move forward. That brought all parties to the church lot, and one again residents rallied to oppose housing authority plans. 

“I can’t think of a worse place for this,” said Thirlmere Avenue resident Kevin Stoehr, calling the proposal “100 times worse” than the dead South Portland Housing Authority projects on Ocean Street and Sunset Avenue.

“It just doesn't fit our neighborhood,” said another Thirlmere resident, Joyce Mendoza. “It didn’t fit in Knightville, it didn’t fit in Sunset, and it won’t fit here.”

“I think this is a disaster for us,” agreed Scott McKeen, also of Thirlmere Avenue, noting that getting on and off Main Street is “already terrible,” due in large part to the new streetscape the city created in 2016, which drops Route 1 from four lanes of traffic to two at Thirlmere Avenue.

Having 42 new housing units in place of the church, “would push all of the traffic back through the neighborhood,” McKeen said, predicting new residents would use the side streets as high speed shortcuts to alternate entry points onto the main drag.

“I think they've really underestimated what the traffic would be here,” McKeen said.

However, Mayor Linda Cohen predicted that traffic would not be as heavy as some fear, given that many of the people who might live in a housing authority project “don’t work.”

A formal traffic study has not yet been commissioned, More said, but the South Portland Housing Authority expects the 42-units – with 83 parking spots planned – will add no more than 26 vehicles to peak hour morning commuter traffic. 

Others in the audience Tuesday evening voiced support for the project.

“We ended up with their Dunkin’ Donuts,” said Meg Johnson of Pennsylvania Avenue, observing that the business turned out to be not quite the apocalypse she and her neighbors had initially feared.

“I think we need affordable housing in South Portland badly and we need it in all the neighborhoods,” Johnson said. “I think this project will have not nearly the impact on this neighborhood that they are picturing.”

“South Portland was built by blue collar folks and it’s getting to the point where families with kids can’t afford to live here anymore,” said New York Avenue resident Don Cook. “We need the families. That property is going to be developed and these people will do a good job of it. But it a private business gets in there, then whatever that zone holds, they’re going to do it.”

Concern also was voiced about the motels and businesses – such as pawn shops and check-cashing stores – located across Main Street from the development site, making that area home to what one Thirlmere resident deemed, “a lot of nasty stuff.” While almost everyone who spoke, even opponents of the project, said South Portland does indeed need more affordable housing units – More said South Portland Housing Authority has a two-year waiting list of more than 90 families – some said a complex as large as the one on the table could only add to reported issues with crime and vagrancy in the neighborhood.

“I just don’t think single-family homes are going to happen on Route 1,” said Keswick Avenue resident Matt Lunt. “But this project may help develop Route 1 in the way we would like to see.”  

“I would give you this zoning (change request) and then some if this project was built almost directly across the street right on top of one of those motels,” Councilor Claude Morgan told housing authority officials. “I’d give you the keys to the city if you’d build it on top of both of those motels.”

However, Morgan said given the size and scope of the project, he could not support the number of zoning amendments needed in the new conditional zone. 

Among those changes, More said, the housing authority would ask for a density limit of 25 living units per acre – up from between four and 16 allowed on different parts of the property under the current split zoning, and an increase in the height limit form three stories, to four.

In addition to the housing complex, South Portland Housing Authority plans to retain three lots to the rear of the property that could be used for single-family homes, but they could also become a playground or park, More said. 

The housing authority is also working with Smaha’s Market to occupy the retail space, although More did not say if the new location would be in addition to, or instead of, Smaha’s current Knightville location. 

Early plans did include retaining the church building and leasing it out to Port City Baptist Church, More said, but that has since fallen by the wayside, More said, as the housing authority tweaked its plan following four meetings with residents over the last two months, in an attempt to mitigate concerns by moving the building and parking area as close to Main Street as possible, rather than run it along either Thirlmere or Aspen avenues.

However, More said the housing authority could not lower its call for greater housing density on the lot. An attempt to comply with current zoning leave the agency it with a “$4 million shortfall,” he said, even when taking the $1 million purchase price out of authority reserves and not counting that toward the development cost that would need to be recouped. 

More said it will cost South Portland Housing Authority $189,048 per unit to erect the building as planned, with all of its zoning change requests. Moreover, the scoring system used by the Maine State Housing Authority favors more units. Limiting the project to just the 28 units it might be able to get in under current zoning would boost development costs above $205,000 per unit, More said, making it very unlikely South Portland Housing Authority would score enough points on its application to gain state funding. 

In the end, Mayor Cohen sided with Morgan, calling the project too large for the neighborhood, as proposed.

However, the balance of the council said that while they, too, had concerns, the need for affordable housing is great enough that they favored letting South Portland Housing Authority take its project before the planning board, to see what could be worked out in terms of conditions that would sway them enough to favor some or all of the requested zoning amendments.

“Like it or not, I think this is something we need and need desperately,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said. “Maybe the planning board will have some great ideas as to how to fix it.”

But there remains one wrinkle left to iron out. 

The council split 4-2 on allowing the project to move forward in the process. But any zoning amendments will require a supermajority of five votes to pass. 

That could make District 3 Councilor Eben Rose, absent from Tuesday’s meeting, a popular individual over the coming weeks.


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

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