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Portland council OKs financing for Congress St. project, orders demolition of Washington Ave. building

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Portland council OKs financing for Congress St. project, orders demolition of Washington Ave. building

PORTLAND — The City Council Monday gave the developer of a historic Congress Street building a tax break, saying renovation of the building could lead to rejuvenation of a depressed section of downtown.

At the same meeting, councilors ordered another developer to demolish the Washington Avenue building he owns, which the city has deemed dangerous.

Alec Altman, the owner of 6 Washington Ave., agreed to tear the building down within 10 days, his attorney David Lourie said. Altman, however, is disputing the city's claim he needs to pay $150,000 for housing replacement because city records indicate the abandoned building once had three residential units.

Lourie argued that the building had been used only as a dry cleaning business for at least the past 40 years and should not be required to abide by the 7-year-old city ordinance.

Altman plans to appeal to the Planning Board and Lourie has said previously that the matter could end up in Superior Court.

The Baxter Library building at 619 Congress St. will use more than $270,000 in tax increment financing from the city to help finance renovations of the 121-year-old building. The TIF is spread over nine years.

Josh Benthien, a partner in the Northland Enterprises development group, told the council Monday that he has been working for two years with the building owner, Maine College of Art, on a redevelopment plan for the building. MECA has owned the property since 1983, using it as classroom and office space, but the school recently consolidated its campus to the former Porteous Building on Congress Street. 

"The building is a significant structure," Benthien said, explaining that the TIF arrangement will allow his company to close a gap in the $4.6 million in financing it needs to pull off the project. The developer has also secured funding from federal and state historic tax credits, traditional bank financing, a Maine College of Art loan and Maine Rural Development financing.

Renovations will include cleaning up the facade, installing historically accurate replacement windows and doors and new landscaping. The inside of the building will be renovated into office space for Via Group, the Portland-based marketing firm that plans to occupy the building.

Via is currently based on Danforth Street, but founder John Coleman said he wants room for his company to grow. He said the deal with Northland also includes an option to eventually purchase the Baxter property.

Via employs more than 60 people and Coleman said he plans to grow those numbers while also growing the company's national profile.

"We're very optimistic about that part of town," he told the council.

City Councilor Cheryl Leeman lauded the project.

"That is an area of Congress Street that desperately needs improvement," said Leeman. "Hopefully it will be the impetus for other activity in that quarter of Congress."

Under the TIF agreement, 65 percent of taxes on the property would
go toward the project while 35 percent would either go into the
Creative Economy TIF District or the city's General Fund. The Baxter
building is within the city's Creative Economy Development and
Arts TIF District, which was created by the council last year to
promote arts and other creative endeavors in the Arts District.

The TIF agreement was approved unanimously. City Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said Northland plans to begin renovations after sealing the purchase of the building later this month. Occupancy is expected a year from now.

Business park

The City Council also voted on Monday to accept a $660,000 Economic Development Administration grant for construction of a road and utilities on 26 acres of city-owned land off Rand Road. The city plans to market the property as the Portland Technology Park and hopes to attract technology companies to the city. 

The grant is a match for city funds that have already been committed for the infrastructure construction.

The city plans to market building pads at the park starting in the spring. 

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net