Portland City Council approves zoning changes for Munjoy Hill arts center

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PORTLAND — Plans for a proposed $7 million, 400-seat performing arts hall at St. Lawrence Arts can move forward after City Councilors approved zoning amendments Monday night.

Councilors also approved a zoning change that will allow 53 market-rate rental apartments to be built in Bayside, and a new amendment to the agreement with Miami-based Federated Cos. on the construction of the Midtown development on Somerset Street.

By a unanimous vote, councilors approved the amendments to a conditional zoning plan at 76 Congress St. on Munjoy Hill, the former site of the St. Lawrence Church sanctuary. The agreement includes a transportation-demand plan that would fund additional Metro bus service via surcharges on St. Lawrence Arts ticket sales.

Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr. was among the councilors who expressed some misgivings about how many people will use public transportation to get to the proposed venue.

“It will be challenging to get people to use the increased frequency of bus services,” he said before voting in favor of the zoning amendment.

The amendments received a unanimous favorable recommendation from the Planning Board on Oct. 28, a factor that swayed Councilor Ed Suslovic’s opinion of the plan, he said.

Suslovic added if the arts center parking proves to be a problem for neighbors, parking stickers could be issued as a way to preserve neighborhood parking spaces.

To encourage people attending shows to use Metro buses, the Friends of St. Lawrence have offered to subsidize $70,000 annually for expanded service on the No. 1 bus line, which runs up and down Munjoy Hill on Congress Street.

To some, including Munjoy Hill resident and city Parks Commission member Jaime Parker, the transportation demand plan is an “innovative and exciting plan and the direction we should head in the city.”

Skeptics, including long-time project critic Ralph Carmona, said there is no evidence people attending shows from out of town would use the bus after parking downtown.

Peter Manning, who owns property on nearby Howard Street, said the $70,000 should be used on shuttle buses running to the proposed performance center from the park-and-ride lot on Marginal Way near Franklin Street.

Eastern Promenade resident Steven Gaal suggested District 1 Councilor Kevin Donoghue recuse himself from the vote because he also serves on the Metro board of directors (Suslovic and Councilor David Marshall are also board members), and said the Friends have not provided enough information about how often the arts center could be used.

“Will it mean 200 additional cars looking for parking once a month, once a week or once a day?” Gaal asked.

Not all neighbors opposed the plans. Monument Street resident Jonathan Radtke said the St. Lawrence is a good fit.

“I want you to find a way to say yes because they have been good neighbors,” he said.

Plans to build the performing arts hall have been considered for a couple of years, and revised sketches were reviewed favorably by Historic Preservation Program Director Deb Andrews and the Historic Preservation Board at its Nov. 5 meeting.

The sanctuary was torn down in 2008 after it was deemed “structurally dangerous,” Andrews said last month.

The project still requires Planning Board approval, and Planning Board Chairman Stuart O’Brien said there are details that will need consideration during the site plan process.

He said the Planning Board endorsed the zoning changes because of the need for a performance space in the neighborhood and the “robust transportation management plan” that helps make the project compatible with the city comprehensive plan.

Last month, Deirdre Nice, St. Lawrence Arts executive and artistic director, said the plan is to break ground in 2016 for an opening in early 2017.

Other developments

By changing zoning at 89 Anderson St. in Bayside, councilors allowed a proposed high-density housing plan proposed by Redfern Properties to go to the Planning Board. The plan calls for mixed use of the building, with restaurant and retail space on the first floor. The building height would be capped at 45 feet.

Michele Castner, a resident of 86 Anderson St., said she is concerned the apartments would lead to residents being priced out of the neighborhood.

Developer Jonathan Culley said the plan is to provide housing for middle-income residents, with rents anticipated to be less than those at a Redfern project on the West End at Pine and Brackett streets.

Suslovic was the only councilor opposed to amending the contract agreement outlining the Midtown project and city obligations. He asked if it was needed before the Planning Board finishes its site plan review.

Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said the amendment is needed to show the changes and “broad basic parameters” of the development, which is being discussed in Planning Board workshops.

Suslovic in particular objected to spending $4 million to elevate Somerset Street by 2 feet, with about two-thirds of that provided by the city. He said the money would be better spent on measures to deal with projected sea level rise throughout the area.

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

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.