Portland City Council OKs Clifford School, Thompson's Point deals

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PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday unanimously approved two high-profile real estate deals that could add new housing, a parking garage and a sports arena to Portland.

The council voted 9-0 to sell the former Nathan Clifford School, at 180 Falmouth St., to Developers Collaborative for $1. The developer plans to convert the four-story school building into as many as 22 market-rate apartments.

Designated by the city as a historic landmark, the school was designed by famed architect John Calvin Stevens and built in 1907. It closed in 2011 after the opening of Ocean Avenue Elementary School.

Terms of the sale call for Developers Collaborative to keep 18,000 square feet of the 67,000-square-foot school campus as public space, and to spend $15,000 on public infrastructure improvements.

The developer had originally proposed paying $200,000 in a plan that would have also included building two duplex residences on the school grounds. That proposal, which was rejected by a task force of neighbors and city officials, would have reduced the amount of open space left for the public to 6,000 square feet.

Another proposal, from developer Community Housing of Maine, would have created 60 affordable apartments, with up to 24 of them in new construction. That plan was also rejected by the task force.

In another 9-0 vote, the council OK’d the sale of about three acres of city land along Riverside Street to the developer of The Forefront at Thompson’s Point. The Forefront is the much-anticipated, $100 million mixed-use complex planned for 25 acres near the Portland Transportation Center, off the Fore River Parkway and Sewall Street.

The Riverside Street parcel will be the new site of Suburban Propane, the fuel company that now occupies about 2.5 acres at Thompson’s Point. By moving Suburban, the developer will now have room to build a 730-space parking garage and a 3,500-seat sports arena as part of the complex.

Although plans have changed since it was first proposed in 2010, The Forefront is also expected to include office and retail space, a restaurant and a hotel.

The property swap between Suburban Propane and the developer, Forefront Partners, was agreed to in August. But the deal hinged on Forefront acquiring a new site for Suburban.

Despite the unanimous votes, and the stated support of neighbors for the Clifford School development, not everyone at the meeting was enthusiastic about the city’s real-estate bargaining.

Former state Rep. John Eder of Gray Street said he was dumbfounded that the city negotiated to preserve open space at the school, a month after agreeing to sell off about two-thirds of Congress Square Plaza to the developer of the former Eastland Park Hotel.

“This same committee just voted to sell my public park, Congress Square Park,” Eder said. “I find this unbelievable. … The council is out of step with the wishes of Portland.”

While he voted for both sales Monday, Councilor John Anton nevertheless was concerned about their long-term implications.

He asked what would happen if a future owner of the Clifford School apartments refused to maintain the public space. Under the terms of the sale, the city loses ownership of the space, which is made up of a playground and playing field. Developers Collaborative – or a future owner – is responsible for upkeep of the space, although an easement grants public access.

Danielle West-Chuhta, the city’s chief lawyer, said in that scenario the city might have to resort to legal action to enforce the maintenance requirement.

Anton also questioned whether the $285,000 selling price of the Riverside Street land represented a good deal for the city.

Greg Mitchell, the city’s economic development director, said the figure was based on the going rate for land in similar industrial zones. But Anton was skeptical.

Although he will not be seeking re-election to the council next month, he urged his colleagues to consider independent market appraisals and other external information when negotiating future real estate transactions.

The same criticism has been levied at the council recently for approving the $524,000 sale of Congress Square Plaza.

“I think a little more rigor around purchase prices and sale prices is in order,” Anton said.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.