Parking remains a hurdle for proposed Portland restaurant
PORTLAND — Developers of a restaurant proposed at 227 York St. suggested they aren't ready to give up after their plan failed to receive a variance from the city's Zoning Board of Appeals on Jan. 3.
Neil Reiter hopes to build a restaurant in the dilapidated house that occupies the property. But first he needed an exception from zoning rules that require him to provide three off-street parking spaces for patrons and employees.
With no driveway, and only a 6-foot-wide walkway separating it from another property, the narrow property can't accommodate those spaces.
The board narrowly turned down Reiter's request, deciding by a 3-2 vote that he didn't prove the site would lose "all beneficial use" without the variance – one of four conditions for granting it.
The board agreed unanimously that Reiter met the other conditions.
Tom Landry, the property manager who represented the building owner, A Better Maine LLC, told the board the restaurant was the only practical use for the vacant street-level space, which has a dirt floor and "could be condemned."
"This place is a mess," he said. "It's in active failure."
The 1860s-vintage structure includes a four-bedroom apartment, which is rented. But with the rest of the building empty, A Better Maine loses about $100 a month on the property, Landry said.
Finding another tenant would be "almost impossible," he said. Retailers – which would not be bound by the off-street parking requirement – already have plenty of real estate choices nearby in the Old Port. And before the vacant space could be marketed, it would require renovations costing at least $5,000, according to Landry.
But Reiter said he is willing to make that investment.
"What's compelling is that this space is a blank slate," he said. "I've always wanted to do this. It's on my bucket list."
Nevertheless, the board was unconvinced the property would lose its use without a variance.
Landry admitted that A Better Maine had never actively tried to rent out the vacant space. And if the building is sold, he said, A Better Maine would probably recover the $125,000 price it paid two years ago.
Board member Mark Bower said Reiter hadn't "met the burden to show he can't get beneficial use" from the property.
Members of the public objected to the variance request for other reasons.
Rosanne Graef, president of the West End Neighborhood Association, told the board the variance was "ill-advised" because Reiter's restaurant would be next to another that received a similar variance for seven spaces in 2008.
That restaurant, at 231 York St., was to replace Popeye's Icehouse, a notoriously rowdy bar known for an airplane tail sticking out of its roof. Despite a stall in plans, the new restaurant is finally expected to open in the spring as Outlier Eatery.
Reiter cited Outlier's variance in his own application. But unlike his proposed restaurant, the neighboring building did not include an apartment and had already been condemned.
Graef suggested the neighborhood can't provide enough parking for both establishments.
"Is anyone keeping track (of the parking spots)?" she asked. "We need to see the forest and not just the trees."
A York Street resident, Pamela Shelton, added, "I would love to have a nice little restaurant there, but we can't find parking spaces as it is."
But a Summer Street resident, Seth Harkness, said parking in the area is "not that difficult," and that the issue of three parking spots "is not enough to outweigh the benefits of the restaurant."
Reiter and his wife, Lauren, the project's architect, said they may now go in search of parking.
Under the zoning rules, if the Reiters can lease the elusive three spaces within 1,500 feet of the restaurant, the variance would not be necessary.
Lauren Reiter said she looked for spaces while drawing up the restaurant proposal. "But now," she said, "we're going to try again like crazy."