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Tweaks fail to appease critics of Munjoy Hill theater proposal in Portland

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Tweaks fail to appease critics of Munjoy Hill theater proposal in Portland

PORTLAND — Nearly 100 people jammed a public meeting at East End Community School Monday to discuss plans for a 400-seat theater that would adjoin the St. Lawrence Arts Center on Munjoy Hill.

Opinions differed as sharply as the theater's modern look would contrast with the former church's 19th-century architecture.

The Friends of the St. Lawrence Church, the nonprofit group that owns and operates the center, is proposing a performance hall where the historic church's sanctuary once stood, at the corner of Congress and Munjoy streets. Built in 1897, the sanctuary was demolished in 2008 after years of deterioration.

The arts center currently includes a 99-seat theater in the church's former parish hall, which the Friends renovated in the late 1990s. But the new theater would host concerts, plays and other performances large enough to make the center "self-sustaining," according to its executive director, Deirdre Nice. 

The preliminary design of the new hall features a large, box-like space, sided with metal screening that would be lighted from behind, creating a "Japanese lantern effect," according to project architect David Lloyd. A glass-walled promenade room, offering panoramic views of the neighborhood and Casco Bay, would top the structure.

The design is still "very, very conceptual," Peter Bass, a member of the Friends board of directors, told Monday's meeting.

"Nothing is cast in stone here," Lloyd added.

But residents were skeptical of the proposed building's contemporary appearance and about whether the neighborhood has enough parking for theater-goers.

"I don't have a problem with modern design," North Street resident Ralph Carmona said. "The question is, does it fit with the historic nature of the neighborhood?"

Barbara Epstein, a tour guide from North Deering, said, "I don't want visitors to say to me, 'What is that monstrosity?'"

Morning Street resident Cliff Gallant asked the Friends to come up with another plan. "A number of us are saying we don't like the big-box design," he said, "Are there other options?"

Last week, Gallant and others in Monday's audience attended a Historic Preservation Board workshop on the project. At that meeting, a slightly different design for the theater was unveiled, calling for the building to stand 54 feet tall.

In response to feedback at the workshop, the design presented Monday dropped the building height to 47 feet. In addition, the revised plan includes a stepped-back "porch" on the building's side above Congress Street.

Some people at Monday's meeting seemed to appreciate the changes in the design. But attendees also voiced new concerns, most of which focused on the need for adequate parking in a congested area where parking is at a premium.

Nice explained that a 2010 proposal for the new theater, which was approved by the city's Planning Board, found sufficient on-street vehicle spaces and also included plans to provide additional spots in satellite garages.

Atlantic Street resident Jamie Parker said he liked the "contrast" of the buildings's design and that parking should not dictate the plans for the new hall.

"If we design a building to suit the need for parking, we'll all be at the Maine Mall," Parker said.

After the meeting, Lloyd admitted that there is no perfect solution for parking. "It's part of urban living," he said. "We're not going to make everybody happy.

"This is a process," he added. "And it can be a bit of a slog. But I'm optimistic that ultimately we're going to have a great building."

The project must go through several more meetings of the Historic Preservation Board and Planning Board, as well as another public meeting, before it gets to the City Council.

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