PORTLAND — The City Council Monday approved a proposal that will allow the owner of the Williston West Church to install offices and housing units in the historic West End building.
The 6-3 decision came at the conclusion of a meeting that featured a marathon of public comment.
The proposal required a conditional rezone of the 32 Thomas St. property, which sits in an area restricted to residential use, although a different and less restrictive zone that allows mixed use begins across the street.
The conditional rezoning and the introduction of a commercial business to one of the city’s most upscale neighborhoods were at the heart of the debate, which has occupied residents and Planning Board for much of the year.
The church was built in 1877. Its parish house was added in 1904, and designed by John Calvin Stevens. The church congregation vacated the building last year and sold it to Frank Monsour, an Australian doctor and businessman, for $675,000.
Monsour plans to turn the parish house into the offices of a software development company called Global Magella Technologies, which he owns and his son runs. The plan also calls for up to three residences to be built on the upper floors of the building, and for the church sanctuary to be opened as a community center and potential performing arts venue – a component that was left out of the final proposal and will have to be taken up by the Planning Board in the future.
The board had recommended that the council approve the plan after holding workshops in March and April and a public hearing spanning two evenings in May.
Planners heard nine hours of public testimony, and received 97 letters, including a petition with 140 signatures opposed to the project. Chairwoman Carol Morrissette said the board’s recommendation was based on the unique nature of the building (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), the efforts that would be made to preserve the building’s exterior, the project’s compliance with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, and on performance promises written into the agreement.
Many of the same residents who spoke and wrote to the Planning Board attended the City Council meeting. Fifty people spoke during the public comment period, with 26 in favor of and 24 opposed to the proposal, according to the tally by Councilor Nicholas Mavodones. With three minutes each, members of the public spoke for more than 2 1/2 hours from the Council Chambers floor and balcony.
Those who opposed the plan argued that the council should uphold the neighborhood’s specific zoning restrictions, and said that permitting the conditional rezoning and commercial use sets a dangerous precedent.
“There is no integrity to any of the city’s zoning restrictions,” said Sid Tripp, a Neal Street resident whose property is directly behind the church.
There was also concern that the project, which could include more than $1 million to replace the slate roof and reinforce structural support in the church bell tower, among other renovations, would never be finished.
Other neighbors spoke about the impact the church development would have on quality of life in the neighborhood, as the software company’s employees, capped by the plan at 14, come and go, and by activity at the planned community center.
And although the official applicant for the zone change was a corporate entity, 32 Thomas Street LLC, comments from the opposition were often deeply personal.
The building’s owner, Monsour, has been criticized for keeping his distance from Portland and the neighborhood – on Monday, he was unable to attend the meeting because of a conflict at his Brisbane, Australia, medical practice, his chief architect said – and for his reluctance to listen to neighbors’ complaints.
“When this project doesn’t work … you’ll have to call Australia to get resolution,” said Charles Remmel, a West End community leader.
But Spring Street resident Carol Merrill said she found the idea of refusing Monsour’s investment based on his status as a “foreign national” to be “repugnant.”
Neal Street resident David Eaton, who said that the once-active church had provided a positive contribution to the area, described some opposition arguments as “fear-mongering distortion of fact.”
Supporters of the proposal argued the new use of the buildings would be no more intensive, and perhaps less so, than the church’s former schedule, which at times included child-care services, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, choir practices, weddings and funerals, in addition to Sunday services.
More importantly, they said, the plan offered economic benefits to the entire city, with a growing business (Global Majella currently has a Congress Street office with just a few employees), while preserving an important neighborhood landmark.
Ultimately, the City Council, with the exception of Councilors John Anton, John Coyne, and Cheryl Leeman, who voted against the proposal, were swayed by the vetting the project received from the Planning Board, and by the suggestion that the building’s new use would create no greater neighborhood hardship than a church.
The council majority also noted the zoning the project would enjoy were it located on the opposite side of the street.
“I see this the way contract zones should be used,” Councilor Kevin Donoghue said. “I do find this situation exceptional enough.”
Councilor John Anton said the addition of a performance bond to the agreement was a wise one. The Planning Board’s amendments to the agreement also require the developer to send progress and compliance reports to the city for five years, and to complete the restoration of the building within two years.
The council on Monday also set several other initiatives in motion:
• Mayor Michael Brennan appointed a steering committee for his new Initiative for a Healthy and Sustainable Food System. The project comes in response to a community forum earlier this year on the topic of food security and access in Portland. The initiative’s goals include increased access to healthier foods and identifying and implementing positive changes in the city’s food systems and policies.
• Councilor Ed Suslovic introduced a pair of projects: a task-force to look at potential re-uses for the former Nathan Clifford School, which the city took over from the School Department, and an order that the city explore a ban on the sale of non-recyclable polystyrene products, in light of the school system’s recent decision to replace foam trays next year.
• The council also voted to amend the city’s General Assistance order to comply with restrictions made by the state Legislature this year.
Portland City Council Chambers were full Monday night as more than 50 people came to listen and speak about the Williston West Church rezoning proposal, which the council eventually approved by a 6-3 vote.
The Williston West Church, 32 Thomas St., in Portland’s West End.