Martin's Point pullout puts focus on lack of South Portland policy

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The city’s lack of an open-space philosophy is being blamed for Martin’s Point Health Care’s withdrawal of a proposal to redevelop the former Hamlin School.

As a result, no immediate changes are expected at the Hamlin property, and the city is fast-tracking discussion about a formal policy on open-space management.

The Portland-based health-care organization last week announced the suspension of its development proposal. A May 22 letter, from company Vice President Dick Daigle to City Manager Jim Gailey, cited a lack of feedback from the city as the deciding factor. 

“We are puzzled by the lack of response to our proposal from the city, which replaces an aging facility with a responsible, high-quality development, while incorporating relocation of the (Planning and Development Department) at no cost to the city, and provides significant tax revenue for years to come,” Daigle said in the letter. 

With “no indication” whether the proposal “aligns with your vision for this property’s redevelopment,” Daigle said, “we find ourselves in a position where we must move on.”

Many residents of the South Portland Heights neighborhood opposed the proposal, which would have significantly reduced green space and a community garden that now occupies the rear of the three-acre parcel at Sawyer and Ocean streets.

Martin’s Point currently operates out of a 10,000-square-foot office at 51 Ocean St. in Knightville. It submitted the proposal to relocate to 496 Ocean St. “with the intent to provide a professional facility that would integrate nicely in the neighborhood and would be developed in partnership with the city and local residents,” according to Daigle’s letter.

Representatives from Martin’s Point met with neighbors May 7 and, in an attempt to compromise, sent a revised plan to the city on May 20.

Modifications included shaving more than 2,000 square feet from the original plan to get to about 12,700 square feet and a parking lot with 65-70 spaces. The plan allowed neighbors to maintain about a quarter of the parcel for green space and included room for 45 garden plots. 

Gailey and other city staff had started setting dates for Martin’s Point to present the revised plan to the City Council, most likely in early June.

But two days later, Gailey received Daigle’s letter notifying him that the organization was withdrawing its proposal.

Gailey said the decision was “not at all expected.”

Resident Adam Lampton, who helped collect 270 signatures in support of preserving the neighborhood green space, said he doesn’t believe the withdrawal was necessarily a victory.

The issue was never with the health-care organization and its intent to develop the property, Lampton said Monday.

“It doesn’t feel like a victory because the neighborhood’s goal is to maintain that green space and that is still unsettled,” he said.

“We aren’t trying to prohibit a business from using the building,” Lampton said. “In fact I think many people would welcome an improvement to that space.”

Daigle this week agreed.

He said he received several emails from residents “expressing some disappointment.”

“One said they felt it would’ve been the best use for that property,” Daigle said.

He said a lack of communication from the city “about whether (the proposal) was in line with their thinking or not” put Martin’s Point in an “odd position” of being unsure whether to continue talking with neighbors or whether their application even aligned with the city’s vision for the parcel. 

“If our plans didn’t align, it would’ve been helpful knowing that. At this point I don’t think we still know if that’s what was in line with the city’s vision,” Daigle said.  

“There seemed to be some lack of clarity around the city’s intended redevelopment of that property,” he said. “They asked us to work with the community, but we feel at some point the city needs to set a vision for that area.”

Lampton agreed.

“The issue in the end was about the city administration not having a very long-term vision for what that space could be,” he said. “… I think they put Martin’s Point in the unfair position of having to answer for (the city’s) lack of vision.”

That opinion echoed comments made by City Councilor Tom Blake at a March 9 City Council meeting, when the Martin’s Point application was first presented: “It’s not that we have an open space plan. We don’t have an open space philosophy,” he said, calling it the “single biggest” problem facing the city.  

Gailey this week said he has now heard that message loud and clear. 

“It’s something we rightfully should have some guidance on,” Gailey said. With better guidance on open space, or philosophies for city-owned parcels, he said, “we wouldn’t have cases like this.”

If that guidance were in place, the Martin’s Point application would never have made it as far as it did, Gailey said, and the city would also have avoided the long debate over whether to allow a Dunkin’ Donuts to be built at the corner of Westbrook and Main streets in Thornton Heights.

“I think it’s the right time” for these talks to take place, he said.

As a result, a workshop has been scheduled for July 13 to begin “analyzing city-owned parcels and the philosophy around open space and the value of certain parcels across the community and the neighborhoods,” Gailey said.

Daigle did not indicate whether Martin’s Point would continue looking at alternative property in the city. The organization is “exploring all of our options,” he said. 

As far as the immediate future for the lot at the corner of Sawyer and Ocean streets, Gailey said, “I think the City Council and staff have heard loud and clear what (the neighbors) want to do with that parcel,” he said. “If we have a proposal come in two weeks from now, I’m not bringing it forward.” 

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

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.