Landmark discussion puts Portland school neighbors on alert

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PORTLAND — Despite neighborhood concerns, discussions about designating a vacant school as a historic landmark will go on as scheduled.

Neighbors are worried landmark designation could lock the building into a larger-than-appropriate senior housing development.

As of Tuesday morning, a public hearing on the nomination of the Thomas B. Reed School as a historic landmark was slated to be held by the Historic Preservation Board on Wednesday, Jan. 6. Historic Preservation Manager Deb Andrews said it will be a preliminary discussion to begin the process.

She said the board received a letter from Senior Planner Christine Grimando, dated Dec. 4, on behalf of the Reed School Reuse Task Force, requesting the 1926 structure be nominated for review. Two board members, Glenn Harmon and Bruce Wood, signed the letter Dec. 22, a move that was required to start the formal nomination process.

“It was simply to be on the record,” Andrews said. “It wasn’t going to be a detailed conversation.”

In an email to the Reed School Reuse Task Force, Grimando said this is a preliminary step, and that the formal nomination process can’t begin until detailed background documentation has been prepared.

“Pulling together background documentation hasn’t begun, and any consideration of a designation would be months away,” Grimando’s email said.

Jeff Levine, the city’s director of planning and urban development, said the item is more of “a communication” than an actual public hearing. He said the purpose was to notify the rest of the board that two members had voted to begin the nomination process.

The vacant, city-owned Reed School has been the subject of ongoing discussions about reuse of the building at 28 Homestead Ave. Two developers responded to the city’s request for qualifications last summer; one is a collaboration between Avesta Housing and Developers Collaborative LLC, and the other is from Community Housing of Maine. Both are proposing to construct housing for senior citizens.

Both draft proposals would make use of an affordable housing density bonus, which would have allowed 25 percent more units. The proposal from Avesta and Developers Collaborative called for 45 units, while Community Housing’s proposal called for 46.

But neighbors said the proposals were too large, so city planners decided to limit the project. The maximum number of units that can be built in Reed is 36.

The school is in the Riverton neighborhood, which is zoned as R-3. In order to turn the building into multiple housing units, it would require a zone change to R-5. The city is in the early stages of crafting language for a request for proposals.

On Monday, City Councilor David Brenerman, who co-chaired the Reed School Reuse Task Force, said he was concerned that Reed was placed on the preservation board’s agenda before the task force had a chance to meet again, since there was desire expressed at the previous task force meeting to change the language in the request for proposals.

“It’s on the agenda, and I’m working with the city manager to figure out if that’s the appropriate step that should be taken at this point,” Brenerman said.

He said he did not know Reed was on the board’s agenda until recently, and felt it should have been mentioned at the Dec. 16 task force meeting.

“It seems to me, if we knew it was going to be on the agenda, we should have told (those attending the meeting),” he said.

Levine said the city wrote to the preservation board before the Dec. 16 meeting to begin the process. He said that doesn’t mean the building will become a historic landmark, just that those two members wanted to explore the possibility.

Elise Scala, who lives on Lexington Avenue and is a member of the task force, said she and other neighbors wanted to see the city take the school off the board’s agenda because of the size of the proposals. In an R-5 zone, Scala said, there would be no way to keep the developers from building out to the maximum capacity.

She said based on task force discussions, if the city doesn’t find a developer, there is a chance the building could be demolished to make way for single-family homes. Scala said selling the school to build homes would likely earn the city a “rather tidy bundle.”

“If that becomes a landmark that is no longer a possibility,” she said.

Scala said if Reed becomes a landmark the city would have to continue with the  proposals for reusing the building. Once that happens, she said, there is nothing to stop the developer from building out to the maximum number of units.

“As far as I’m concerned, we’re still defining terms,” she said. “So why a decision to classify the property a certain way when we’re still defining terms needs to be explained better.”

Scala said she recommended that only 24 to 28 units of housing should be allowed in the school building. This would cut down on the number of cars driving to and from the property, and provide a greater amount of green space for the community to use.

Brenerman said he saw no need to start the historic preservation process before he and staff met internally to discuss the RFP changes, unless the process is lengthy.

“I’m looking into it and we’ll see if that’s something that needs to be done this week,” he said.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Neighbors have concerns Portland is rushing the process to turn the vacant Thomas B. Reed School at 28 Homestead Ave. into housing.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.