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.