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City Council supports sound stage, balks at rezoning South Portland armory

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City Council supports sound stage, balks at rezoning South Portland armory

SOUTH PORTLAND — More than a dozen residents attended Monday's City Council workshop to discuss the fate of the former Maine Army National Guard Armory on Broadway at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge.

The workshop was prompted by a Cape Elizabeth resident's proposal to convert the 1940s-era building to a one-stop shop for film production.

Eric Matheson, a film technician for the last 40 years, is the Maine representative of the International Alliance of Stagehands & Theatrical Employees and has done stage work for "Ironweed," "Crocodile Dundee II," "Ciderhouse Rules," "Amistad" and "21," among others. He wants to convert the armory's drill hall into a sound stage for filming and turn the remaining area into offices for film industry-related professions.

Matheson did not give a detailed presentation about his proposal Monday, but at a public forum last week he laid out his plan in detail. He said the armory is structurally sound enough to support automated light trusses. He said the wooden floor in the drill hall is ideal for quietly moving props and sets, and the kitchen would be perfect for cooking show prep work and feeding stage crews. 

Also, Matheson said he would like to restore the "original luster" to the original exterior of the art deco building and possibly install an art gallery in the foyer. 

For the sound stage to work, the city must either rezone the property or provide a contract zone that would only allow the sound stage and accessory uses. 

City staff originally proposed creating a conditional zone for the armory and surrounding land that would allow the sound stage and other conditional uses. The approach involved changing the single-family residential zone into a multi-family residential zone, which would allow apartments and condominiums, if the sound stage project fails.

The proposed conditions would prohibit retail uses and require council approval to alter the outside of the armory and allow outdoor filming at night. Since the only access to the property is on Broadway, a condition was proposed to require a secondary exit to Anthoine Street if vehicle trips exceed 140 (about two trips per minute) during morning and evening commuting hours. 

About half a dozen residents, mostly neighbors, spoke against rezoning the entire parcel, which includes a 130-foot wide right of way for Central Maine Power Co. that provides a buffer for the Scammon Street neighborhood. Should the city get an easement for the right of way, it could be used for parking, but the city would have control over the buffer.  

Although supportive of the sound stage concept, neighbors were concerned about what future developers might do if the sound stage fails. They were concerned the gravel lot would eventually be converted into a parking lot, infringing on their homes and disturbing what one resident described as a wildlife corridor. 

"Green development is great, but this space is already green," Hudson Street resident Stephanie Gilbert said. "All we would like is an enterprise that brings some excitement and some
energy and does some creative economy development, not taking out an
open space that is important for more than people – it's a wildlife corridor."

Bob Schwartz, a Scammon Street resident for 49 years, asked city councilors to honor the promise of previous councils that the land would not be rezoned to allow more intense uses. 

"We've fought this battle before," Schwartz said. "As far as I'm concerned it's totally ridiculous to change the zone for this one group. It's a small piece of land. Leave it the way it is."

The City Council was generally receptive to the neighbors' concerns, favoring a contract with Matheson that would only allow the sound stage and ancillary uses. 

As a concession to residents concerned about Hudson Road, currently a dead end, being opened to through traffic for the armory, City Manager Jim Gailey suggested the council pursue a discontinuation of the portion of road abutting the neighborhood – a direction most councilors seemed to support. 

"This would eliminate access (to the armory) from Hudson Road forever," Gailey said. 

A revised proposal is expected to come forward at a future workshop. Councilor Jim Soule successfully pushed for that workshop to include an executive session to discuss the financial aspects of the sound stage proposal. 

Matheson said he and a group of investors ultimately would like to purchase the armory, but indicated the timing would depend on a state bill to give tax breaks to companies that bring film work to Maine. The legislature postponed action on the bill until January, he said.

Until final action is taken on the bill, Matheson said he would be like to lease the building and be given a first option to buy.

"Financially, we're ready to sit at the table," he said. 

Soule said a financial discussion at this point would be prudent, given the amount of staff time being invested into the plan for one particular use.

"You guys have put in an awful lot of work to date" Soule said. "I think some preliminary discussions need to be had so we can make a sound financial decision."

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