Portland arts center readies for expansion on Munjoy Hill

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PORTLAND — As the curtain rises on a new review for expanding the St. Lawrence Arts Center, its executive director is hoping for a receptive audience.

“We will have a shovel-ready project and fundraising going forward,” Deirdre Nice, executive director of Friends of the St. Lawrence Church, said Jan. 17 about the 6,700-square-foot performance space planned for 76 Congress St.

A Planning Board vote was expected Tuesday on the site plan for the long-planned expansion, which includes a 400-seat theater, lobby and second-floor promenade. Nice estimated the expansion cost at $10 million.

“We will have a project, that if funded, could be built within 11 months without delay,” she said.

On Dec. 15, 2014, city councilors approved conditional zoning to allow the expansion, which had been opposed by some neighbors because of its scope and potential impact on neighborhood views.

The Friends have been interested in expanding the venue for nearly a decade. 

The application in front of the Planning Board dates to 2016, and theater plans are largely unchanged from those discussed four years ago.

The new theater would be built on an empty lot where the former Congregational church sanctuary stood until 2008. The former parish hall, at 66 Congress St., is now home to a 110-seat theater, which opened in 2001.

According to St. Lawrence Arts, the congregation itself dated to 1854 and had met nearby on Congress Street before the church and parish house were built in 1897. The congregation dissolved in 1986.

In 1993, Nice and a partner bought the church. Nice sold it to Friends of the St. Lawrence Church in 1997. 

Nice said the new theater can also become an auditorium for the East End Community School and dance groups without space to call home. Expansion plans would also add 10 seats to the existing theater, and the new lobby would serve both performance spaces.

A new kitchen, concession area, green and dressing rooms for performers, and new bathrooms are also planned. 

As part of the expansion, Friends of the St. Lawrence Church will also contribute $70,000 annually to the city’s Sustainable Transportation Fund, money to be used to improve METRO bus service to Munjoy Hill as the nonprofit encourages the use of public transportation by audiences.

“There may even be people who do not use our arts center who will be aided by METRO reduction in (bus) times,” Nice said. The $70,000 will be raised through a surcharge on event tickets.

Parking was a source of worry for neighbors as the expansion plans were discussed and zoning amendments drafted.

A study done by the Friends showed about 880 on-street spaces within a five-minute walk of the St. Lawrence, with use of the spaces running between 65 percent and 72 percent. The study estimated about 220 spaces would be available within a five-minute walk for venue events.

The Friends will also offer valet parking services, and ticket discounts for people arriving in car pools or by alternative forms of transportation.

The zoning amendment also requires the developer to pay for crosswalks, sidewalk ramps and other needed pedestrian improvements where Congress Street intersects Munjoy, Howard and Beckett streets. 

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

Expanding the St. Lawrence Art & Community Center in Portland to this lot at Munjoy and Congress streets could be done within 11 months after the project is funded, the nonprofit’s director, Deidre Nice, said Jan. 17.

A designer’s rendering of the view from Congress Street of a new, 400-seat theater at the St. Lawrence Arts & Community Center in Portland.

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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.