Forecaster Forum: Community input crucial to St. Lawrence design proposal

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The Friends of St. Lawrence Church, in its May 10 newsletter, show a proposed contemporary design structure in place of the sanctuary restoration they originally planned. This much-delayed revision is the only item before a Portland Historic Preservation Board workshop on May 29.

An expanded St. Lawrence Arts Center will help replace the empty lot where the church’s sanctuary once stood. However, the devil is in the details. The proposal conflicts with FSLC’s “small arts” mission and Munjoy Hill’s character.

Beyond the historic-preservation issues facing the revised, boxy design, there are fundamental economic feasibility and parking concerns. Is the demand there? How will this addition impact our surrounding walkable community? Imagine the potential surge of 300 cars circulating Munjoy Hill’s narrow streets in search of curbside parking for a conceivable 700-person event. Imagine that for 300 days a year. Then, imagine that with snow.

Transforming the present 110-seat neighborhood venue into a regional, downtown-like, three-venue, 700-plus-person site, flies in the face of demonstrated limited demand. That is what caused the sale of 530-seat Port City Music Hall in Portland’s downtown. People are more likely to attend parking-friendlier downtown venues like the renovated Civic Center, State Theater, Portland Stage or Merrill Auditorium.

At the heart of any historic preservation review process is community input. Yet the FSLC’s board of directors has done very little to reach out and address obvious community concerns about the complex proposal. Many on Munjoy Hill are unaware that behind the initial 2010 design proposal was city-approved federal funding to tear down the historic church’s dilapidated sanctuary on the promise of restoring it. Few folks know that public support for restoration influenced City Hall support for both a rezoning of that site and signing off on a questionable transportation management plan to address unavailable parking.

We hunger for a contemporary expanded addition to St. Lawrence Church; there is no NIMBY-ism here. But what is proposed rises two stories above the highest roof peak of the Parish Hall. It overwhelms the existing historic structure, casting a looming shadow over surrounding streets. This towering building is in stark contrast to the former sanctuary’s steeple and slanted roof. It is a design appropriate for a downtown or regional environment, not for Munjoy Hill.

The FSLC contemporary design proposal simply does not meet the HPB’s Historic Standard. It clashes with what remains of the church primarily in terms of scale, mass, visibility, and visual distinction, undermining Munjoy Hill’s neighborhood in ways inconsistent with historic preservation.

There are alternative ways the standards can be met that will maintain the viability of the historic St. Lawrence Church property and enliven the Munjoy Hill community. But that requires a conversation. Maybe the FSLC believes that Portland City Hall’s deliberation on incremental changes to their present proposal will be little different than when it approved a restoration of St. Lawrence Church.

If that happens, the Munjoy Hill neighborhood and the people of Portland will be left with unanswered core questions. This is why we helped organize a Concerned Citizens of Munjoy Hill committee. Our goal is to research and reach out to the broader community about this proposal’s impact on historic preservation, parking, and its economic feasibility.

The fruits of the CCMH committee’s labor will begin to take on a public face at the May 29 workshop. In the public interest, we hope you join us.

Portland residents Ralph Carmona and Ann Landsberg are members of Concerned Citizens of Munjoy Hill.