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Controversial Portland theater plan coming out of hibernation

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Controversial Portland theater plan coming out of hibernation

PORTLAND — After a six-month hiatus, a much-debated proposal to add a 400-seat performance hall to the St. Lawrence Arts Center on Munjoy Hill may once again be in the public spotlight.

The Friends of the St. Lawrence Church, the nonprofit group that owns and operates the center, wants to build the hall where the historic church's sanctuary once stood, at the corner of Congress and Munjoy streets.

The sanctuary and adjacent parish hall were built in 1897 in the Romanesque architectural style. The sanctuary was demolished in 2008 after years of deterioration; the former parish hall houses the center, which includes a 110-seat theater.

Deirdre Nice, the Friends executive director, on Friday said the group hopes to apply in early January for approval of the project by the city's Planning Board. The group must submit a site plan for the hall, as well as a plan for managing related traffic and parking needs.

It's too early to say when the board would begin considering the application, but it might be as soon as February, according to Nice.

"The process has taken a little longer than expected," she said. "Sure, it would be great if we were already through (the Planning Board) now ... but it's all forward progress."

Because it involves a landmark building, the project must also receive approval from the Historic Preservation Board. That panel has already discussed the plans in three workshops, most recently in May. Nice said she expects at least three more meetings to be held, including one perhaps in January, before the board votes on approval.

Feedback from the Preservation Board convinced Nice and architect David Lloyd that the project was "headed in the right direction" and that it was time to begin preparing the Planning Board application, she said. Over the past few months, the Friends have been busy doing that.

Despite the feedback, some neighborhood residents remain opposed to the project.

A group of about a dozen calling itself the Concerned Citizens of Munjoy Hill has mounted a campaign against the new hall, claiming its design is incompatible with the neighborhood and so large that the expected crowds would outstrip the neighborhood's parking capacity.

The design calls for a modern, box-like space, sided with perforated metal that could be back-lit to create a "Japanese-lantern" effect shining along Congress Street. A glass-walled promenade room, offering panoramic views of the neighborhood and Casco Bay, would top the structure.

Members of the public who spoke at the workshops were divided in their opinions about the design, which has been scaled down from a version presented in December 2012.

In response to public feedback, the proposed height of the main facade was reduced from 46 feet to 41 feet, and the facade moved 9 feet back from Congress Street. The current design has a capacity of about 50 seats fewer than the original. Also in response, an entry porch was incorporated in the plan, and pink granite, a type of stone used in the sanctuary, would be added to the facade.

But while the design may now be more to the liking of some residents, parking looms ahead as a challenge. The Historic Preservation Board doesn't consider parking issues; the Planning Board does.

In 2010, the Friends drafted a plan for the performance hall that would have housed it in a near-replica of the sanctuary. That design, like the current one, was required to include a "transportation demand management" plan. The TDM plan called for using satellite parking lots and garages, shuttles, and extended METRO bus service to minimize the need for parking in the vicinity of the arts center.

With a construction cost of $17 million, the 2010 design ultimately proved too costly for the Friends, and was shelved in favor of the current, less-expensive, more space-efficient one.

But the 2010 TDM plan is being updated so that it can be used in the current proposal.

Opponents have called the plan a "hodgepodge of solutions" that may not be able to handle the influx of event-goers on the Hill, especially given changes in the neighborhood since 2010.

A lot at the former Adams Elementary School, originally proposed as one of the parking sites, was converted into a condominium complex last summer. And future housing development, including buildings currently planned at four sites on the Hill, could squeeze parking capacity even more.

"When it comes to parking, I think (the project) is going to hit a dead end," North Street resident Ralph Carmona, of the Concerned Citizens, said earlier this month.

Carmona said he has collected nearly 600 signatures opposing the current performance hall design, and that the group will be increasing its activity as the Planning Board takes up the project.

Still, Nice is optimistic.

The building boom on the Hill and in other areas of Portland could even make it easier to obtain city approvals, she feels.

"It would be hard to be hyper-critical of St. Lawrence Arts when there are all these other projects out there dwarfing this," she said. "And most of the other projects are for private (use) ... the St. Lawrence stands alone as a project that is for the public.

"It's taking a while to get through the process. But we're poking away. Ultimately we'll succeed and have a wonderful resource."

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