Husson University faces uphill battle in effort to move to Portland
PORTLAND — Having failed to get a positive recommendation from the Planning Board on their proposal for a new Congress Street campus, Husson University and Elks Lodge 188 plan to suggest additional restrictions they hope will sway City Council votes.
The university and the Elks had proposed an amendment to the R-2 residential zone surrounding the Elks' lodge at 1945 Congress St., to allow colleges, universities, and trade schools.
The Elks plan to move to a building at 178 Warren Ave. and sell the Congress Street property to a third, unidentified party who would renovate it and lease it to Husson.
The Planning Board split 3-3 on the proposal on Feb. 14 , sending the zone change amendment to the council without a recommendation.
Husson and the Elks had proposed two conditional uses to minimize undesirable effects on the neighborhood, according to their representative, real estate broker Mark Malone: that buildings not exceed 24,000 square feet, and properties not exceed two acres .
Objections to the plan from three Planning Board members centered around the concern that changes to the R2 zone would allow unintended development in the neighborhood, city Planning Director Alex Jaegerman said.
Malone will present a third condition, restricting colleges and universities to locations along major roads like Congress Street, when he pitches his case to the City Council in March. The zone amendment proposal will get a first reading at the council's March 5 meeting; deliberation and the council's vote should come at the March 19 meeting, Malone said.
The council has the final say on whether to make amendments to zoning codes.
“We thought that (the original conditions) would be enough” to win the Planning Board's approval, Malone said. “But it wasn't.”
With the added arterial-only restriction, “all of a sudden you can very easily identify the number of properties that can be used. And it's probably just one. It's probably that one,” Malone said.
The limitation “pretty much eliminates the potential of unintended consequences in R2 zones,” he said.
Planning Board members who opposed the amendment felt that a contract zoning agreement was a better solution to allow Husson to use the space on Congress Street, while ensuring that other areas wouldn't be affected by the zoning change, Jaegerman said.
But reshaping their proposal as a contract zoning agreement was not possible because of time constraints surrounding the Elks' option to buy the building on Warren Avenue, Malone said.
Beyond their desire to move faster, “contract zoning is really not great planning just to be used willy-nilly,” Malone said. A six-year veteran of the Planning Board himself, Malone said he feels that contract zoning arrangements are best suited for very unique or complicated circumstances and that Husson's proposal is neither.
“The important thing to remember is the R2 zone already allows schools,” he said.
As the proposal moves to the council, the applicants “face a bit of an uphill battle,” Jaegerman said. Malone “needs to make a compelling case before the council,” he said, noting that the Planning Department will continue to work with Malone and will explain the board's vote to the council.
But “I think the applicant is within reason to take their chances with the council,” Jaegerman said. “I think the council will be able to assess their own judgment.”
Husson is hoping to move its Portland-area campus – it has others in Bangor and Presque Isle – from a shopping mall complex at 220 Maine Mall Road in South Portland to Congress Street because “it would give us an identity,” said John Rubino, Husson's vice president of administration.
“Where we are in South Portland, I think, that identity could be lost in the stores and the retail and all that,” Rubino said.
The university would have 10 to 12 classrooms and 350 students to start after renovating the Elks property, according to its proposal.
Three days after the Planning Board's deadlock, Rubino, who said he had not been very involved in the plan after Malone began representing Husson and the Elks jointly, sounded less optimistic about the proposal than Malone did.
“Husson is interested in having a site that represents us better in higher education, and we'd like to be in Portland, so we'll see what is available. We'll see what the future brings,” Rubino said.
"It's up to the city of Portland what they want to do."