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Short Relief: Tell Portland City Hall you're tired of the same old swamp

Opinion

Short Relief: Tell Portland City Hall you're tired of the same old swamp

Portland’s Bayside neighborhood used to be a swamp.

In a heavy rain, it still gets flooded by runoff coming down the hill from Cumberland Avenue. Over the years, it was filled in and used for a variety of industrial and residential purposes. Those included a railroad, foundries, lumber yards, warehouses and junkyards, and relatively diverse, working-class people living in apartment buildings and single-family homes.

The demographics of the neighborhood attracted a long-running campaign for urban renewal that culminated in the demolition of hundreds of structures in the 1960s.

By the 1990s, the stretch of Marginal Way between Franklin and Preble streets was pretty barren. The highlight was probably an organic grocery store, and it was pretty dour. The strip of land bordered by Somerset, Elm and Pearl streets was used as a junkyard and snow dump.

In 1996, the city got some Environmental Protection Agency funding to clean up the area. In 1998, it convened a task force to grapple with the challenge that was Bayside. Hundreds of people participated in the process. It produced a new vision to transform the neighborhood from urban blight to gateway, by developing a walkable district with a mixture of housing, shops, workplaces, open spaces and community centers.

There have been several efforts to realize that vision and some progress has been made, mostly along Marginal Way. It began with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services building in 1998, and continued with the AAA, Rite Aid, Intermed, Bayside Village, Gorham Savings Bank, Trader Joes/EMS, and Planet Fitness buildings. However, many opportunities have been lost.

In 1999, the Libra Foundation offered the city seven acres in Bayside and $20 million dollars to build a new civic center. The city rejected the offer. In 2000, Idexx Laboratories considered building there, but decided instead to put its $60 million headquarters for 700 employees in Westbrook. In 2002, Seligman Data considered the area for its mutual fund service center, but opted for South Portland because it didn’t want scrap yards as neighbors.

In 2006, from among several bidders, the city chose the Atlantic Redevelopment Co. to develop a Somerset site. But negotiations dragged on, and by November of 2007, the economy had soured to the point that Atlantic withdrew.

In 2008, MaineHealth and the United Way of Greater Portland received approval to build a new joint headquarters on the site, but backed out.

Now, Miami-based Federated Cos. has agreed to buy the Somerset property, as long as the city approves its proposal to turn it into a combination of housing, parking, and retail space. Its master plan calls for constructing four, 15-story buildings containing up to 850 units, 100,000 square feet of retail space, and more than 1,100 parking spaces, in three phases.

The Planning Board has held six workshops on the project, addressing concerns such as building height, the "wind-tunnel" effect, shadows and runoff. On Dec. 10, 2013, it held a public hearing. Many of the people who addressed the board opposed the plan on grounds that it was too big, or too tall, or not creative enough. The board responded by postponing its decision to January.

Cut and paste the following address into your web browser and take a look at the master development plan:

The master development plan for the so-called Midtown project, on Pages 16 and 17, superimposes the project against the Portland skyline as viewed from the area of Baxter Boulevard. It shows that the architects designed the project so its elevations do not exceed those of the existing buildings sitting on Cumberland Avenue and Congress Street.

At Pages 25, 26, and 51-54, you can see an artist’s rendering of what the development would look like from street level. At Pages 38- 43, you can see analyses of the shadows that the buildings are projected to cast at different times during a year. Exhibit 4B is a report about the project’s system to handle and treat predicted rainfall and runoff.

This project will take an empty lot in a depressed area of town and turn it into something attractive and useful. It will provide hundreds of people with places to live. It will create jobs in a variety of sectors, from construction, to maintenance, to retail sales. It will add productive people and property to the city’s economy and tax base.

If you agree this is a good plan, let the Planning Board know by emailing the development review services manager at bab@portlandmaine.gov.