PORTLAND — Just beyond the chain-link fence that runs along Franklin Street, there sits a neighborhood that time has seemingly forgot.
Behind the graffiti-strewn Rite Aid, there are several dilapidated apartment complexes. Some are occupied with tenants, but several are vacant and boarded up.
A few of those vacant apartment buildings are located on Hampshire, Federal and Newbury streets, where Donald Sussman, the husband of Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, owns six of the seven properties.
But Sussman is interested in redeveloping the Hampshire Street area into something the community wants and needs.
Tim Federle, a Hallowell-based attorney representing Sussman, said he has been reaching out to community leaders on Sussman’s behalf.
“(Sussman) always saw this neighborhood as having huge potential (but) being subjected to lots of neglect,” Federle said.
One of Sussman’s investments in the area is nearly ready to bear fruit. The renovation of an old tobacco warehouse on Hampshire Street is nearly completed and is expected to open soon as the Portland Food Co-op.
Federle, who indicated Sussman bought the residential properties during the economic downturn of 2008, said the project is only in the initial stages, so there won’t be any concrete plans being submitted to city planners anytime soon.
Plans will not be submitted until the concept is fully vetted, he said, “and that may take some time.”
But Federle said the concept getting the most traction is one calling for art-focused development. That could entail building a mixed-use development that would become a place for artists and musicians to live, work and hang out.
“We want to do something great here, so we’re engaging a lot of people,” he said. “We want to make sure the neighbors think it’s great.”
Hugh Nazor, of the India Street Neighborhood Association, said the group recently voted in support of Sussman’s redevelopment concept.
“I really see no downside,” Nazor said.
Like other neighborhood residents, Nazor is concerned about the city’s efforts to encourage tall, dense urban developments in the area.
But Sussman’s proposal, he said, respects the original character of the neighborhood, which was essentially cut-off from the Old Port with the creation of Franklin Street.
“We desperately need more feet on the street – more people,” Nazor said. “The businesses along Middle and India streets have a difficult time of surviving.”
Federle said Creative Portland Corp. has agreed to host a two-day visit with a group that specializes in these types of developments.
CPC Executive Director Jennifer Hutchins said ArtSpace, a national nonprofit out of Minneapolis, Minn., will come to Portland Sept. 29 and 30 to look at potential development opportunities.
Hutchins said there are several developers working on creating more live-work space for artists. The ArtsSpace visit will be an opportunity bring everyone together, including artists and city officials.
According to its website, ArtSpace is dedicated to creating, fostering and maintaining affordable spaces for artists and arts organizations. It was created in 1979 in Minneapolis, Minn., as a way to combat gentrification, which occurs when low-income neighborhoods are redeveloped into more expensive housing.
Gentrification typically pushes out low-income residents and, in many cases, artists.
ArtSpace has undertaken more than 20 developments in the U.S., including one in Connecticut. In many cases, the group reuses old factories and other abandoned areas.
But Hutchins said will present a different challenge to the group.
“We don’t have a lot of abandoned spaces,” Hutchins said. “Portland is pretty booked.”
In addition to Hampshire Street, Hutchins said the group will visit four or five other properties, but declined to make them public. A public event is being scheduled for the evening of Sept. 29 at the Portland Public Library.
Hutchins said the city is interested in a broad range of possibilities for artist live-work spaces that would be self-sustaining and taxable developments.
“Portland has been grappling with this for a while,” she said. “This is a great opportunity to survey the community broadly. The Hampshire Street property is a good opportunity, but there may be other properties. We’re taking a pretty big perspective about what’s possible.”
Federle said Sussman would like to treat his six individual properties as one continuous parcel. That would allow for possibility of creating a building that faces Franklin Street.
That building, Federle said, could contain a mixture of first-floor commercial uses that drive the creative economy, including an arts performance center, galleries, coffee shops, restaurants, offices and the like.
Above the primary floor could be live-work spaces for artists, he said.
“Portland has a great art scene,” Federle said. “The idea is we want artists to be able to afford to live here.”
Federle said Sussman is also interested in opening up the Hampshire Street neighborhood to traffic from Franklin Street. Currently, Hampshire Street is a one-way road off Congress Street.
Whatever the make-up of the final project, Federle said there in one thing Sussman is focusing on: Sustainability.
“He’s not interested in it sputtering out in five years,” he said.
Attorney Tom Federle gestures to a block of apartment houses along Hampshire Street owned by Donald Sussman, the husband of Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, that may be be redeveloped as mixed-use, live-work space for artists and arts organizations.