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Revised performance hall design fails to satisfy critics on Portland's Munjoy Hill

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Revised performance hall design fails to satisfy critics on Portland's Munjoy Hill

PORTLAND — The Historic Preservation Board meets Wednesday to continue discussion of a proposed addition to the St. Lawrence Arts Center on Munjoy Hill.

The Friends of the St. Lawrence Church, the nonprofit group that owns and operates the center, is proposing a 400-seat performance hall where the historic church's sanctuary once stood, at the corner of Congress and Munjoy streets. The sanctuary, built in 1897, was demolished in 2008 after years of deterioration.

The hall would feature a modern-looking, box-like space, sided with metal screening that could be lighted from behind. A glass-walled "promenade room," offering panoramic views of the neighborhood and Casco Bay, would top the structure.

The project's design team has refined its preliminary plans for the hall, based on a neighborhood meeting and two previous workshops with the board.

But despite the refinements, some neighbors feel the building simply cannot meet city standards that govern alterations to historic landmarks such as the Arts Center, formerly the church's parish hall.

"(The design team) has made multiple iterations of the design, and definitely has made some steps to approach the standards. But no matter how they tweak it, it's still way, way too big," said Ann Landsberg, a member of neighborhood group Concerned Citizens of Munjoy Hill.

The board applies 10 standards in reviewing applications for permission to alter or add to historic structures. Standard No. 9 directs that "the new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the size, scale, color, material and character of the property, neighborhood or environment."

The proposed addition is not compatible, the critics say.

"(The hall) would loom over the entire neighborhood, and cast enormous shadows. This is a building that might be appropriate downtown or on the waterfront, but not in a residential neighborhood," Landsberg said.

She also said sketches of the proposed building shown to the public make it appear that the Arts Center is surrounded by flat-topped buildings, similar to the proposed addition. In reality, the site is within a dense mix of two- and three-story apartment buildings and houses of various styles.

Friends Executive Director Deirdre Nice has said that the size of the addition is necessary in order for the performance hall to be financially "self-sustaining," and project architect David Lloyd has already scaled back the hall's size slightly in response to public feedback. In addition, he has pointed out that the building's height is about the same as the height of the former sanctuary.

But Tim Baehr, annother member of the neighborhood group,  said "the proposed building is a monolithic box. Even if it is no higher than the original height of the church, it will fill all the air space. This massiveness is hardly in keeping with the character of the parish hall or of the rest of this historic neighborhood."

In a letter to city staff last week, Lloyd listed several recent modifications the design team has made to the plans in an attempt to "lighten" the addition, including the relocation of an elevator shaft and the addition of a rooftop trellis.

"We believe this revised design reflects some of the board's concerns, the concerns of our neighbors and the intent of the design standards. The addition, a contemporary design, has now been modified to reflect the existing building in material and scale but still retains its distinctive architectural of its time," he wrote.

The Historic Preservation Board meets at City Hall Wednesday at 4 p.m.

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