PORTLAND — A proposal to turn a former hotel and college dormitory on Congress Street into apartments is generating criticism from Deering Street residents, who oppose a parking lot planned for their street.
The developer, Bayside Maine, purchased Portland Hall from the University of Southern Maine in October for $2.2 million. It is proposing turning the 645 Congress St. property into about 60 apartments. The plans call for demolition of three wings at the back of the building. One of those wings is on Deering Street and some neighbors are concerned that replacing the building with a parking lot will sully the character of the Deering Street Historic District.
Stephen Smith owns a circa-1865 brick home across the street from the property. He said that although the dormitory building is nondescript, it completes the street front along Deering Street, providing continuity.
“Replacing that with parking – a lot of parking – is just a very suburban kind of development,” Smith said, adding that the current building helps to conceal the back of buildings along Congress Street.
Greg Shinberg, a partner in Bayside Maine and a consultant for the project, noted that a 34-space parking lot already exists on the property along Deering Street. Shinberg said he is willing to work with neighbors and to provide screening in the form of landscaping for the proposed parking lot.
Shinberg also said that although his company wants to eventually construct a building on the Deering Street portion of the property, it can’t get financing to do so right now.
“I understand the neighbors’ perspective and that is our intent,” Shinberg said. “But I can’t guarantee it.”
The former dorm property totals 1.7 acres and sits between Congress, Avon, Henry and Deering streets. Shinberg and his business partner, state Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, plan to convert the two connected Congress Street buildings into efficiency and one-bedroom apartments. Most will be offered at market rate, although 10 percent will be affordable.
The building was constructed at the end of the 19th century and for a majority of the 20th century was a hotel. USM bought it in 1988 for student housing. But the university closed Portland Hall in 2007 and put the property up for sale.
Shinberg said he looked into renovating the wings of the building, but found out from an engineer that the wings – built on stilts – are twisting and would need new partial foundations.
“They have lateral issues,” he said, so renovation is not economically feasible.
Smith said that if the building must be demolished and become an empty lot, neighbors would prefer the developer create a park-like area along Deering Street to act as a buffer and to blend in with the rest of the neighborhood. He compared the idea to the approach the Portland Museum of Art took with the former YWCA lot on Spring Street, where there is parking, but also a street-front park.
But Shinberg said he can’t afford to put in a park and give up possible revenue from the parking spaces planned for the lot.
“I think there is going to be a tug of war about landscaping,” Smith said.
Smith also questioned whether Bayside Maine can have parking along Deering Street, because it is in an R-6 residential zone. He argued that a revenue-generating parking lot, or one used for the retail space planned for the Congress Street building’s first floor, is not allowed in the zone because it would be a business operation.
Shinberg pointed out that some of the parking would be for the residents of the Congress Street building – although they would pay a parking fee – and that a retail tenant is going to demand off-street parking.
The Planning Board is expected to hold another workshop to discuss the project Feb. 24.
Deering Street residents are objecting to plans to level the rear of Portland Hall, right, and leave a parking lot in its place.