Former South Portland church again eyed for development

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A former church in Thornton Heights is again planned for redevelopment, more than a year after an emotional and prolonged neighborhood dispute over preservation of the historic structure.

Kerry Anderson, of KDA Development in Scarborough, is asking the city to change the zoning of a portion of the former St. John the Evangelist property at 611 Main St., between Aspen and Thirlmere avenues.

His request will go to a Planning Board public hearing and must also be vetted by the City Council.

Anderson has agreed to buy the church property from Cafua Management for an amount he declined to disclose.

The Methuen, Massachusetts-based company purchased it in December 2013, and had hoped to build a modern, drive-through Dunkin’ Donuts. But that proposal provoked vigorous neighborhood opposition and was eventually abandoned.

Anderson’s request would change the classification of the rear portion of the lot, now zoned Residential A, to the Main Street Community Commercial zone, which is in line with the rest of the nearly 2-acre parcel.

While building plans have not been submitted, Anderson’s application proposes re-purposing three vacant buildings – the church, a parish building and a former school – for housing and commercial use. Potential uses could include a “restaurant, theater, (and) multi-family housing,” according to the application.

The zone change would allow commercial parking in the rear of the lot, commercial use of the 1960s-era church, and increased density to accommodate housing in the circa-1960 school building.

The plan does not include new construction, although Anderson noted in his application that, “future phases of development could include removal of the parish house and development of the corner lot.”

Development vs. preservation

Throughout 2013 and 2014, neighbors fought to preserve St. John’s church after the parcel was purchased for about $730,000 by Cafua, which, according to the company’s LinkedIn profile, owns more than 300 Dunkin’ Donuts franchises in seven states.

Cafua initially proposed a zone change that called for demolishing the church and replacing it with a bigger, drive-through Dunkin’ Donuts than it currently operates less than two blocks south of the church on Main Street. 

In May 2014, after neighbors mounted an opposition campaign, the council re-zoned 611 Main St. to the Main Street Community Commercial zone, prohibiting drive-through operations and demolition of the church.

As an alternative, the city proposed giving Cafua a long-term lease on a vacant, city-owned lot at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets, next door to Congregation Bet Ha’am. It would have re-zoned that parcel to the Thornton Heights commercial zone, allowing 24-hour drive-through operations and six-story buildings on the vacant lot.

But nearby residents and abutters, including the synagogue, pushed back against that proposal, and convinced the city to preserve the land as green space. It is temporarily being used as a staging area for the third phase of the Thornton Heights Sewer Separation Project.

The church buildings, meanwhile, have remained vacant.

Best of both worlds?

Anderson, whose projects include the 154-lot Eastern Village subdivision in Scarborough, said on Tuesday that he was reluctant to release too many details about his plan. He said he first wants to discuss his proposal with neighbors.

“I want everybody who’s in the neighborhood to be involved and to see what’s going on,” Anderson said. “I’m looking for as much (input) as possible. There’s a process, and I want to obey it.”

He did say that his proposal would serve all sides; the preservation of the church would be in keeping with many of the neighbors’ wishes, and the residential and business development would be “completely in keeping with with the (city’s) Comprehensive Plan.”

The idea is to integrate new development into the existing structures in a way that feels organic and neighborhood-friendly, he suggested, rather than trying to insert something predominantly commercial and out of place.

Beyond that, Anderson said he doesn’t want to divulge any information “until after I’ve met with the neighbors; they’re the first people that deserve to be informed as to what’s going on.

“I really want them to be the first ones to hear about it, from me,” he said.

Early indications were that neighbors may more amenable to Anderson’s proposal than they were to Cafua’s.

Devin Deane, of 87 Thirlmere Ave., said he’s “happy that there’s an interested buyer.”

Deane, who was one of the more vocal opponents to Cafua’s plan, said he hopes Anderson plans to provide “community-friendly businesses,” like a coffee shop or local market. And more residential housing is “always a plus, as long as it’s done in a thoughtful way,” he said.

“I don’t want to see the property sit vacant; I do think it should be utilized,” Deane said Thursday. “If we’re going to bring in businesses, let’s bring in ones that the community can build around.”

Heidi Libby, of 43 Aspen Ave., on Wednesday said she, too, would like to hear more from Anderson. “If he wants to talk, we’ll talk,” she said.

Libby, who lives in a home abutting the rear of the former school, said Cafua hasn’t maintained the property. On at least one occasion, she said, one of her family members has had to mow the grass.

She said she wouldn’t mind a more reasonably sized development than Cafua sought, “if it was quiet at night,” and as long as the property is properly maintained.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

Scarborough developer Kerry Anderson wants to repurpose the former St. John the Evangelist Church property at 611 Main St., South Portland, for residential and/or commercial use.

A zoning change at 611 Main St. in South Portland would include the former St. John the Evangelist school on Aspen Avenue. It would increase the housing density cap and allow the property to be converted to multi-family housing and commercial use.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.