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Geometry a hurdle for Portland hotel proposal

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Geometry a hurdle for Portland hotel proposal

PORTLAND — Developers of a proposed 131-room hotel on the western edge of the Old Port are grappling with how to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Or, rather, a parallelogram.

In October, real estate company J.B. Brown & Sons announced plans to construct a six-story structure that would include a Courtyard by Marriott hotel, 14 apartments and a 7,000-square-foot restaurant at 321 Commercial St.

The plans are now undergoing review by the city's Historic Preservation Board and Planning Board.

At a Dec. 12 workshop with the developers, Preservation Board members questioned if the L-shaped footprint of the complex would clash with the shape of the lot where it would be built.

The site, now a one-acre gravel parking lot owned by Brown, is bordered on the west by Maple Street and on the east by Foundry Lane.

Both roads meet Commercial Street at obtuse or acute angles, while the proposed outline of the Brown complex is filled with right angles. In addition, plans call for the end of Foundry Lane to be "straightened" so that it could serve as a vehicle entrance to the hotel's valet parking station.

Foundry Lane is a narrow, granite-paved, 19th-century street that was discontinued by the city in 1995 and is now part of a neighboring property, Baxter Place. Brown is proposing to use the lane as an entrance through an easement with Baxter's owners.

But Hilary Bassett, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks, told the board that the new project should "preserve and enhance Foundry Lane as a character-defining access point to the hotel.

"The form of Foundry Lane appears to be subsumed to the needs of parking and traffic, and the siting of the building independent to the lot form. Foundry Lane is an essential part of the historic character of the site," she said.

She also urged the developer to "build the structure to or parallel to the lot lines, which is a pattern that is consistent with the historic development along the street."

At the workshop, board members and the developer's representatives brainstormed alternative plans that might better follow the existing configuration. But many of the schemes would require reducing the number of parking spaces available for the hotel complex or for Baxter.

"We can't lose more parking," Brown President Vin Veroneau said, noting that the developer already had reduced the number of spaces in response to feedback at an earlier board workshop.

Current plans call for the complex to include about 28 spaces for use by a valet service and apartment residents. Vehicles of hotel guests would be parked in a lot owned by Brown off York Street.

Veroneau also said the project should not be "slavish" to the lot lines and configuration of Foundry Lane.

An earlier, smaller design for the hotel, developed in June, would have paralleled the lines more closely, he noted. But that design would not have included landscaping and other improvements to the lane, and would have left the corner of Commercial and Maple streets undeveloped.

"We thought to ourselves, is there a better solution?" he said.

But some board members seemed ready to return to the earlier plan.

"The (current design) is getting really convoluted," board member Ted Oldham said. "Foundry Lane is Foundry Lane ... maybe it shouldn't be part of this project."

As the workshop ended, Chairman Rich Romano asked the developers to come up with a solution that "respects the property lines, but also resolves the need for parking."

The board must still hold a formal public hearing on the project, which also must undergo a site plan review by the Planning Board. A workshop on the project with that board is scheduled for Tuesday.

The developer hopes to begin construction of the $17.5 million project next year.

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