Outer Congress Street zoning dispute continues, returns to Portland City Council

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PORTLAND — A request to rezone land occupied by the Elks Lodge at 1945 Congress St. continues to meet neighborhood opposition.

“The Stroudwater Village Association continues to ask the city not to rezone any parcels until we’ve all adequately discussed the big picture of the neighborhood, especially in light of recent activity on other nearby parcels,” Association President Dan Koloski said in an email Tuesday.

The request is scheduled for a Monday, Dec. 21 City Council vote. On Dec. 11, Northlands Enterprise principal Josh Benthian said he hoped a meeting with neighborhood residents the night before had cleared the air about Northland’s hope to zone the seven acres for office space.

Northlands has an agreement with the Elks to purchase the property for $1.25 million, and plans to build two office buildings totaling 40,000 square feet while allowing the Elks to remain on the property. Plans also call for demolishing 10,000 square feet of the Elks Club building.

“We finally understood the crux of why the core group was opposed,” Benthian said, adding he thought the meeting made it clear why residential development is impractical.

Bill Linnell and Roger Hinchliffe of the association on Monday said they were more amenable to a development with one office building moved back from Congress Street, but still believe residential development is the best and most necessary use for the land.

“It was a pep rally for the rezoning; they were not willing to consider the possibility that our opposition would lead anywhere,” Hinchliffe said.

Linnell said there is already abundant office space in the city, and planned development at Thompson’s Point will bring more.

“They’ve never tried to market it for residential,” he said of the Elks. “Housing is maybe the single greatest issue in the recent mayoral elections.”

Benthian said he is willing to work on development details, including possibly moving the building to be occupied by Dr. Michael Bedecs so it does not directly front Congress Street.

“There are just a lot of issues with the site, the least of which, there is no (adequate) sewer,” Benthian said. He said the access road to the Elks Lodge is controlled by Unum, which also inhibits residential development. Getting a new curb cut for access from Congress Street would be “difficult,” he said.

A second 25,000-square-foot office building set back from the street would become the new home for Clark Insurance, Benthian said in September.

Linnell called Benthian’s arguments ludicrous, and said he and other neighbors could accept housing with a density as high as 80 units on the site.

“There is no such thing as landlocked land in the state, you can make a curb cut,” he said.

No master or site plans have been presented to the city Planning Board, a point city Planning & Urban Development Director Jeff Levine wanted to make clear as opponents questioned how preliminary drawings fit into the office zoning requirements.

The City Council has twice postponed votes on the zoning change, which was forwarded with a favorable recommendation from Planning Board in September.

Former Planning Board member David Silk, also an Association member, said progress was made at the meeting and expressed some optimism on how zoning and development could proceed.

“With some greater dialogue, perhaps with more, there can be a way to reach a compromise that would allow the Elks to accomplish what they want to do and the neighbors to accomplish some of what it wants to see happen,” he said Monday.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

The Portland City Council is scheduled to vote Monday, Dec. 21, on a zoning change proposed for the Portland Elks Lodge at 1945 Congress St.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.
  • William S. Linnell

    Benthian’s claim that there are sewer issues at the site is spurious. Storm water issues will have to be corrected no matter what the site is used for, residential or otherwise. And there’s nothing wrong with the pubic sewer line which runs right by the site. Unum is on that line, too. Zero problems. What else you got?

  • Roger Hinchliffe

    Thank you for Dave Harry’s article today. I’m sorry I didn’t get in touch with him sooner, as there are a number of issues central to this discussion we just didn’t have the time to get to.


    The background:

    · Stroudwater priorities are historically very clearly opposed to an OP rezoning for myriad reasons. Recent straw polling shows that over 90% of the households here oppose it.

    · 1945 Congress (= Elks lot) does not even come close to meeting the city’s requirements for an OP development. It is governed by residential zoning now – for many reasons.

    · Approval of an OP rezoning at 1945 – and the financial windfall it entails – will (and apparently already has) trigger new undesirable copycat OP developments in our neighborhood. There’s money to be made in commercial rezoning – ask the Elks!

    · The City of Portland is in desperate need of housing, and an OP rezoning here and now – in District 3 or anywhere in the city where there is property with definite residential potential – makes no sense whatsoever.

    · I spoke at length with new Mayor Ethan Strimling, and his response was that providing new residential solutions is his number one priority.

    · Northland’s business idea for an OP rezoning flies in the face of common sense not only for the above reasons, but also because Congress St. today between the airport and Westgate has multiple medical office properties with permanent
    Space Available/For Lease signs. They have been there for years. Developers cannot fill existing available medical office space within a mile of 1945 Congress.
    So why build MORE?


    But the most bewildering aspect of this discussion thus far has been the negative role of our District 3 Counselor Ed Suslovic. At the latest City Council meeting on Nov. 2, after a long session featuring numerous speakers opposed to the rezoning, the Council was poised to deny the rezoning proposal. Suslovic rose to request a postponement until Dec.21 because he had neglected to collect some ”information from the Jetport”. The council was, of course, not in need of even more input that Suslovic had waited many months to realize he wanted. At the Elks meeting last week he had no such information to offer. It was a bogus reason from the start. Suslovic knew that three very likely rezoning opponents, Mayor Brennan and two Green Party Councilors, would no longer be on the Council on Dec. 21, and he is coldly reckoning with getting the rezoning approved with new counselors much less familiar with the history of this issue.
    I find this kind of backroom maneuvering abhorrent.

    We must ask ourselves what in the world possesses Stroudwater’s own city counselor to go against the near-unanimous desires of his constituents, to ignore the urgent housing needs of the City of Portland and to subvert the local democratic process – in the interests of the Elks and a commercial developer whose only apparent interests here are monetary.

    It should be quite a meeting on December 21. Welcome to City Hall!

    Roger Hinchliffe

    Stroudwater resident since 1999.

  • Bowdoin81

    If there’s “money to be made” on that site, then here’s a suggestion for the neighbors.
    Form an investment group, pool your resources, get financing, and offer the Elks more than $1.25 million for the property.
    Draw up plans to put 80 residences on the land with the associated infrastructure.
    Sell the lots or develop the property, get rich, keep your neighborhood the way you want it.
    Take a risk. Be the change you want to see.

  • Stroudwater

    So any owner of property zoned residential should be entitled to a zone change unless she gets bought out first by someone who pays the owner an amount of money at least equal to what the property may get if zoned commercial. Even when the property has been zoned residential for years with no complaint from the owner as the property all those years was assessed as a residential property. Not a bad deal. Plenty of folks would love that opportunity.

    • Bowdoin81

      Well that’s enlightening.
      In other words, a denial of the zoning change will preserve the staus quo for that under-used tract of land, given the owner’s purported promise never to sell for residential development. Your comment stands in contrast to the other commenters’ magnanimous view of residential development occurring there. It’s easy to be magnanimous about an impact that one doesn’t really think will follow.