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Neighborhood groups wary as Portland hospital eyes acquisition of Congress Street lots

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Neighborhood groups wary as Portland hospital eyes acquisition of Congress Street lots

PORTLAND — First it was confusion over the fate of a small lot Valley Street lot. Now residents are expressing concern over Maine Medical Center's interest in a one-acre property on Congress Street.

Michael Ryan, MMC vice president of operations, said in an Oct. 16 letter to leaders of area neighborhood associations that the hospital board of trustees authorized the purchase of several lots. One was formerly occupied by the Sportsman's Bar & Grill, and others included a 12-unit apartment building and 9,500-square-foot commercial building.

Ryan, who could not be reached for comment this week, said in the letter that MMC does not have specific plans for the property at 909-919 Congress St., but noted it would be a good location for a commercial business or medical offices, since it is near the Gilman and Congress street parking garages. MMC spokesman John Lamb confirmed the hospital is negotiating for the property, but would not discuss potential uses. 

The sale agreement would require demolition of all building prior to the purchase, Ryan's letter said, and the hospital would have to satisfy the city's housing replacement requirement, which requires developers to replace housing units or pay the city about $50,000 within 2 1/2 years of the purchase. 

"Again, MMC has no immediate plans to develop this site but we think it makes sense as a location for future medical center use," Ryan said. 

St. John's Valley Neighborhood Association President Moses Sabina said he believes the hospital is not allowed to develop the site, because of an agreement it has with the city limiting any development to its existing properties.

"We cannot allow them to disregard any part of their contract with the city," Sabina said in an e-mail.

Portland Planning and Development Director Penny Littell could not be reached for comment about whether any potential development of the site would fit within the existing contract or if changes would have to be made.

Sabina said the association supports commercial development of the property, but not for an expansion of the hospital. The group also fears that the absence of an immediate development plan will mean that the vacant lot that was occupied by the restaurant, which burned in 2002, will become additional parking. 

The letter from MMC comes at a time when neighbors are trying to improve relations with the hospital, and West End neighborhood groups are battling what they describe institutional creep into the historic neighborhood.

"Up to this point, our relations with the hospital have been improving," Sabina said. "This is their first attempt to do something on a property they do not currently own." 

The SJVNA, along with the West End Neighborhood Association and the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association, have been unhappy with the hospital's handling of graffiti and what they say is neglect of a vacant lot at the corner of Valley and A Street, which has been used to store construction equipment.

WENA and WPNA are also fighting establishment of an overlay zone that would allow the Waynflete School to expand into existing residential buildings. 

When the hospital told residents it was going to pave the Valley Street lot, the neighborhood associations voted to oppose the plan, believing the hospital was obligated to loam and seed the parcel and keep it as open space. 

An anonymous video was posted to YouTube on July 11 detailing the condition of the lot, which is fenced in and masked with black material. The narrator points out areas of graffiti, loose wires and brick, asking people to contact the hospital if they are unhappy with its condition.

However, Sabina said the neighborhood association will likely vote to rescind its opposition to the parking lot proposal, because Maine Medical Center has agreed to landscape the area near the sidewalk.

"They are well within their right to develop that lot into parking," Sabina said. "The alternative is for the lot to stay the way it is, and no one wants it to stay the way it is."

Randy Billings can be reached 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net