2018-05-04 / Front Page

Council signals support for Main Street complex

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland City Council suffered another five-hour marathon meeting Tuesday, May 1, but for the first time in seven months, the topic was not short-term rentals.

Debate, however, still centered on housing. The council took the first step in enacting a zoning change that will clear the way for a 42-unit housing complex to be built in place of the former St. John’s Church at 611 Main St.

The South Portland Housing Authority, through its development corporation arm, asked the council to create a conditional zone for the 2.33-acre lot. Currently, that property lies partly in the Main Street Community Commercial zone, which allows a maximum of 24 housing units per acre. The other half falls in the Residential A zone, which is limited to four units per acre. However, the housing authority wants to create 45 housing units, with 42 of them in a four-story complex fronting Main Street between Thirlmere and Aspen avenues. That building will have commercial shops on the ground floor and units that range from one to three bedrooms, each, on the top three floors. The housing authority would then build three single-family homes on the back portion of the lot, reserving a one-quarter acre section for open space and dedicating the rest to parking.

According to Brooks More, development director for the housing authority, 20 percent of the units in the larger building would be priced at whatever the market will bear. However, 80 percent would be held to a rate deemed affordable to people earning about 60 percent of the area median income – that’s roughly $30,000 to $40,000 per year – which would mean rents of between $750 and $1,200 per month.

Given the need for affordable housing in South Portland, the majority of the council was readily in favor of allowing a zoning change to enable the project. However, Councilor Claude Morgan and Mayor Linda Cohen cast dissenting votes.

“I would be unwilling to make a zoning change that would double density. In my humble estimation, this project is too much,” Morgan said.

“When you walk around that neighborhood, there’s a special feel to it. I can’t see dropping this great big building down right in front of that,” Cohen agreed.

However, others said they had faith in the housing authority.

“This is not some fly-by-night operation,” said Councilor Adrian Dowling. “This is not some out-of-state group just out to make a quick buck. These are our neighbors and friends.”

“I think change is going to occur, but I think this project is probably one of the better options for what that change is going to be,” said Councilor Sue Henderson.

More than 35 people spoke during four hours of testimony. The vast majority were in favor of the project, including several recent immigrants, most of whom have since become U.S. citizens. Most said they are members of Color of Community, a group advised by former city councilor Rosemarie De Angelis, and most acknowledged living in Portland, with no direct interest in the project. However, all said they felt compelled to turn out to tell their stories, attesting to the need for low-cost housing for many people, particularly those not only starting out in life, but starting over in a new country.

That theme was drummed from at least a couple of hours before the first naysayer rose to speak. Many who live within sight of the project oppose it based on its size and scope, and most appeared knocked back on their heels by the speakers they had to follow.

“The folks who got up and spoke, man, their stories are moving. I’m here rooting for them,” said Thornton Avenue resident Jonathan James. “But now I’m here feeling like I’m a terrible person for worrying about my neighborhood. But I just don’t feel the magnitude of this project fits the pattern of this neighborhood.”

“Nobody would argue that we don’t need more affordable housing. Our neighborhood supports that,” said Thirlmere Avenue resident Joyce Mendoza. “But things have ballooned in this conversation tonight to solving every social issue know to mankind. That’s not why we are here. We are here exclusively to decide if this property should be rezoned.

“We are a welcoming neighborhood, but this thing is not compatible with the character of the neighborhood around it,” Mendoza said.

But according to More, the housing authority cannot scale down to satisfy the neighbors. It has held several meetings with those who live in the area, and has tweaked the project repeatedly to gain acceptance, More said. However, with a $1.2 million purchase price and $750,000 committed to demolishing the church, Catholic school, and rectory home now on the site, not to mention the cost of construction, 42 units is the fewest the housing authority can build and recoup its investment, More said. In fact, the project will depend on financing form Maine State Housing Authority, which holds a competitive bid process for its funds. The scoring process for those applications places a great deal of weight on construction costs, Dore said. In order to hit the “sweet spot” of about $190,000 per unit, a certain economy of scale is required. And fewer units, and the cost to build each one becomes more than the housing authority is likely to support, he said.

The zoning change will come back for a final council vote May 15. Because the question is a zoning change, it will require a supermajority of five votes to pass. That means the yes side cannot afford a single defection.

If the council does end up against the zoning change, it will not be without precedent. In early 2016 Scarborough developer Kerry Anderson had an option on the property and asked for essentially the same change. However, even though his plan called on retaining the church, the council bowed to bowed to neighborhood pressure and declined the request.

Meanwhile, the housing authority has encountered resistance of its own. In early 2017, it announced plans to build a 48-unit low-income housing complex at 51 Ocean St., along with 28 units in two buildings at 131 Sunset Ave. In both cases, residents kicked back, saying the proposals were out-sized in comparison to surrounding homes. In both cases, council reluctance to allow the zoning changes needed to make the projects happen killed the deal.

“We can do our best, but none of us has a crystal ball,” said Councilor Eben Rose. “None of us knows if this is going to be the thing that is really going to spark a renaissance in this neighborhood, or drag it down.”

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

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