Portland city staff: Williston-West Church redevelopment plan meets preservation requirements

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PORTLAND — City officials and developers are expected to move the Williston-West Church redevelopment project to a Planning Board public hearing Tuesday afternoon.

City staff supported the project, which would turn the sanctuary into a community center and performance hall. The parish building would be used as offices for the staff of a software company started by the building’s new owner, Australian developer Frank Monsour, plus residential units for Monsour’s family.

West End residents are divided on the plan, which would require a conditional rezoning of the 32 Thomas St. property for commercial use.

But city staff determined that the project fulfills their top priorities: preserving the stone church – which is a national historic landmark – while remaining in “basic harmony” with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

“The proposed uses result in minimal alterations to the character-defining features of the two unique buildings,” City Planner Jean Fraser said in a report to the Planning Board.

Because of its listing on the National Register of Historic Places and location within a city-designated historic neighborhood, plans to alter the building would have to follow strict standards, Portland historic preservation program manager Deborah Andrews wrote in a document supporting the city staff’s report.

One of those standards says “the distinguishing original qualities or character of a structure … shall not be destroyed.” Andrews said that while some opponents of Monsour’s plan have argued that the church sanctuary could be converted to residential units, doing so would likely compromise the building’s external character, and particularly its distinctive stained-glass windows.

The plan submitted to the Planning Board for Tuesday’s meeting includes several changes that Fraser said were consistent with city staff recommendations.

The changes include clarified language regarding the number of employees allowed to work in the building (14), and a clause restricting the developer from expanding the volume of the building.

Planning Board Chairwoman Carol Morrissette said that some of the changes appeared to signal an increased willingness on Monsour’s part to compromise with neighbors, who have criticized what they felt was the developer’s hard-line approach to the project.

Critics and a spokesman for the project, Portland consultant Jed Rathband, said the changes are minimal and did not represent a change of tactics.

Neighbors have said the plan could impact traffic and parking in the area during business hours and performances in the sanctuary. The Western Promenade Neighborhood Association argued that concessions the developer has made to lease off-street parking and limit the number of employees working in the church will be difficult to enforce, and that Monsour has not adequately backed up his claims that using parts of the church for commercial use is the only viable option.

Anne Pringle, the association president, said the proposed rezoning that would allow the church building to house offices would continue a trend of eroding zoning standards.

Rathband said that argument overlooks the fact that the church has never been a purely residential property.

The neighbors don’t want to see residential buildings turned into commercial use, Rathband said, but “this is a different beast because it’s institutional.”

Following a decision by the Planning Board, the proposal will go to the City Council, which makes the final decision on zone changes.

Morrissette noted that staff support does not ensure a Planning Board recommendation for the project.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.