Portland City Council OKs Midtown project revisions

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PORTLAND — It may be a month before the opponents of the Midtown development in Bayside get their day in court, but City Councilors on Monday moved forward with revisions to the Somerset Street project.

Four orders were passed to accommodate the timing of the lawsuit filed in Cumberland County Superior Court and borrowing of $700,000 to elevate Somerset Street by 2 feet from Pearl to Elm streets.

“(It is) a project needed to support development in Bayside and flood control issues,” city Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said as he introduced the orders.

Council support, with Councilor Cheryl Leeman absent, was unanimous. But adding to the city debt to move the project forward rankled Holm Avenue resident Robert Hains.

“Perhaps this developer doesn’t have as deep pockets as he would like us to believe,” said Hains, noting the city will ultimately pay two-thirds of the $4 million cost to elevate Somerset Street.

The Miami-based Federated Cos., which has agreed to buy almost 3 1/2 acres of city-owned land for $2.4 million to build the mixed-use development, will pay $1.3 million for the street elevation.

The city will also contribute $1 million from the Bayside tax increment finance zone fund, and $1 million in federal Housing and Urban Development Department funds to complete the street work. Almost $670,000 of the HUD money is a loan; the remainder is a grant, according the project documents.

Hains said he was previously a strong supporter of the project, which would include four 165-foot towers for market-rate apartments and two parking garages in Bayside, built on a former scrap yard that will be cleaned up with city supervision using HUD funds.

The city will also build a 700-space garage as part of the first phase of the project, which was approved by the Planning Board in January.

Mitchell, Planning Division Director Alex Jaegerman, and Public Services Director Michael Bobinsky said the street elevation is not fully required by the city for the Midtown project to move forward, but made the most sense in considering project designs and the potential flood hazards.

The elevation will also boost other development, Mitchell said, including a lot across from Whole Foods.

“Raising the grade is going to benefit both sides of the street,” he said. “Real estate will be better positioned to support development.”

Councilor Ed Suslovic said the street elevation is also a call to consider the scope of flood hazards in the whole area.

“I would hope this is the last time this council is asked to respond in such a knee-jerk fashion,” he said.

The Planning Board decision and City Council rezoning leading to the land sale and development have been contested in Cumberland County Superior Court by nine plaintiffs, including land owners near the proposed development. The case will be heard by Justice Thomas Warren.

“We hope to be in front of him in the next month,” city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said, adding the developers have taken the lead role in defending the suit.

The suit alleges city councilors and Planning Board members ignored the Comprehensive Plan and several studies outlining flood hazards in Bayside while approving the zoning and project.

The plaintiffs also argue only the city Board of Zoning Appeals has the power to revise zoning to allow the taller buildings included in the project.

“In its zeal to redevelop the Bayside area, and in particular the area or development proposed for the Federated project, the City has ignored its obligations to protect citizens and property owners from the not so distant (Hurricane) Katrinas and Sandys that are inevitable in Bayside,” plaintiffs said in an amended complaint filed last month.

The suit has undergone some changes since it was filed in February, including the dismissal of Keep Portland Liveable co-leader Peter Monro for lack of legal standing.

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

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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.