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Portland Planning Board approves Midtown project

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Portland Planning Board approves Midtown project

PORTLAND — In a nearly seven-hour meeting that drew testimony from more than 40 members of the public, the Planning Board on Tuesday approved the $150 million Midtown housing-and-retail complex that could ultimately bring four high-rise towers to the Bayside neighborhood.

Despite expressing concerns about the project, board members decided in a series of votes, all but a few unanimous, to approve a master plan and subdivision plan for the 10-year, three-phase project; a site plan for the first phase, and dozens of waivers from the city's design and technical requirements.

The plans call for Miami-based developer The Federated Cos. to construct four 165-foot-tall towers and two parking garages on 3.25 acres of city-owned land along Somerset Street. The complex would include more than 650 market-rate apartments, parking for about 1,100 vehicles, and 100,000 square feet of retail space in an area that previously contained scrap yards.

The first phase of the project would include a tower with 235 apartments, 43,000 square feet of retail space, and a 700-car garage.

The marathon meeting seemed a fitting finale for a 14-month process that has sharply divided public opinion and included two neighborhood meetings, six board workshops and another lengthy public hearing last month. At that forum, the board postponed voting.

Opponents have claimed Midtown is too large, out of scale with the rest of the city, and inconsistent with the city's 2000 vision plan for Bayside. They also claim the project will block views of Portland's skyline, create harsh winds and long shadows, and set a bad precedent for future development by granting zoning exceptions and a $9 million subsidy to Federated.

But supporters counter that the development will create a hub of housing and commercial space that is necessary for the neighborhood to thrive – and is called for by the 2000 plan. They point to the creation of jobs and apartments as benefits to the entire city.

Midtown's design does not seriously affect the skyline or open space, the supporters claim. They also point out that the area that was conditionally zoned to accommodate 165-foot towers, and that the developer's subsidy is the result of a federal grant for building the initial parking garage.

Many of the arguments were repeated at Tuesday's hearing. But there were a few new considerations.

While a large majority of speakers at the December hearing opposed the project, comments on Tuesday were more evenly divided, with several speakers from the construction industry pointing out the project's economic benefits.

Christian MilNeil, a board member of the Portland Housing Authority, praised the project's impact on housing. "It's going to be really important toward controlling the city's rates for market-rate housing. This being a free market, with supply and demand, the more we can add supply to the housing supply, the more we can reduce rents overall," he said.

Other speakers supported Federated's plans to elevate the nearby Bayside Trail so that it would be level with the ground floor of the project, in response to concern that its grading would reduce access to the pedestrian path.

In response to concerns about winds that may be created by the first tower's height, architect David Hancock presented data showing that winds would be under the 20 mph speed at which they're considered "uncomfortable" – except in one spot between the tower and the garage, where the wind would barely reach the threshold during the winter.

But the data wasn't enough to satisfy Peter Monro, who co-leads Keep Portland Livable, a group opposing the project.

"We don't know the basis for these numbers, we haven't seen them before," he said, questioning what the wind speeds would be during spring and fall.

Tim Paradis, the other co-leader of Keep Portland Livable, accused the city of "short-term defeatism" that is leading it to bend its own rules on behalf of Federated. He also described the risk of the developer abandoning the project.

"We could be stuck there with a tower in the middle of nowhere, while the developer goes away with a handsome profit," he said.

That was a concern echoed by board members. But despite such misgivings, they made it clear they were voting in support because of the project's compliance with the city's land use ordinances.

"I'm not a fan of this project. The height feels too tall for this part of the city, the massing too great," board member Jack Soley said. "But in general (the project) adheres to the ordinances."

Board member Elizabeth Boepple admitted Midtown "seems too big, too intense, for a four-block area.

"But I can't sit here and make a decision based on an emotional response or an emotional appeal," she said.

Board member Carol Morrissette urged others to take a "holistic" view of how Midtown fits into the neighborhood and supports the 2000 plan. Diverse building uses were a goal of the plan, she said.

"But it's very hard to have diversity when everything is three to five stories," Morrissette said. "... We can't have everything we want and have everything look the same."

Board Chairman Stuart O'Brien agreed that, on balance, Midtown seems like a good fit for the neighborhood.

"We cannot manifest the perfect project," he said. "But this is a vision overlaid on the reality of the site."

Lawyer Sandra Guay, representing Monro and Paradis, said Keep Portland Livable is undecided about whether to take legal action in response to the board's decision. An appeal would have to be filed in the next 30 days.

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