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Falmouth Shopping Center buyer: 'Footprint' limit still a hurdle

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Falmouth Shopping Center buyer: 'Footprint' limit still a hurdle

FALMOUTH — Two weeks after protesting what he called a "hastily and arbitrarily conceived" proposed zoning amendment that would prevent big-box retail development along U.S. Route 1, shopping center developer Ben Devine sat down with town councilors to try to work out a compromise.

At the invitation of the  Town Council's Community Development Committee, Devine met with CDC members and town staff Monday to discuss the amendment's cap on the size of commercial developments.

On Aug. 7, Devine submitted a letter to councilors and staff urging them to withdraw the amendment, which would limit the "footprint" of most new or expanded properties to 30,000 square feet.

Devine heads a real estate development firm that is partnering to acquire the Falmouth Shopping Center, in the heart of the town's Route 1 Business District. The deal is pending.

He also owns interests in 20 other New England retail complexes. They include Falmouth Plaza, home of the town's only big-box store, a Walmart that is now expanding in size from 92,000 to 124,000 square feet.

Devine called the 30,000-square-foot limit "not workable" and said it would "kick out a whole viable section of (potential) real estate." For example, a new medical office might require a ground-floor area of 50,000 to 70,000 square feet, he said.

Removing the footprint cap would attract such tenants, but not open up the shopping center to the kind of development found at the Maine Mall in South Portland, according to Devine.

"The bloom is off the rose for big-box development," he said. "The reality is (in Falmouth), those companies aren't coming."

The CDC has considered larger caps, including one earlier this year that would have limited new single-tenant buildings to a footprint of 90,000 square feet.

Regardless of the exact size, a footprint cap was always part of the zoning changes envisioned for the Route 1 corridor, one CDC member, Councilor Teresa Pierce, said.

The town is considering the changes, as well as infrastructure improvements, in its 10-year attempt to reinvent the district as a pedestrian-friendly "village" of small shops and mixed-use buildings.

"We've been working on (the zoning amendment) for quite a while, and the time for action is now," Pierce said.

Devine, councilors and town staff pored over a map of the existing shopping center, and discussed alternative solutions to the zoning dilemma, including allowing new uses for the former Shaw's supermarket space and making zoning exceptions for specific development projects.

But such exceptions can be "hard to navigate," Devine said, because prospective tenants and lenders would be skeptical of a development whose size was tightly controlled, even with the understanding that exceptions would be made. 

"We need flexibility. The Falmouth Shopping Center currently doesn't have the flexibility to survive," he said. "We don't know what direction the shopping center is going to take."

Devine repeated a pledge that his firm, Devine Capital, and partner W.P Realty, have no plans to bring a big-box tenant to the shopping center if the sale is completed. But councilors noted that earlier in the meeting he had said adding a 90,000-square-foot tenant would be "the best thing for the shopping center."

The CDC chairwoman, Councilor Bonny Rodden, said Devine was "disingenuous, and saying a lot of different things."

Still, she said, the CDC is "willing to continue to talk" with him.

Pierce added, "At the end of the day, the town wants a plan that works for developers today, but also for the next 50 years."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.