PORTLAND — The development proposed at the Sisters of Mercy property at 605 Stevens Ave. has been reviewed at two Planning Board workshops.
Now the discussion will return to the neighborhood in a meeting with developers and neighbors.
“We’re hopeful the next neighborhood meeting to use (Baxter Woods) and be able to simulate the effect of the buildings,” John Thibodeau of Preserve Deering Neighborhood said April 28.
The date had not been set Monday, but Thibodeau said he hoped it could be held before the foliage emerges on trees in Baxter Woods, adjacent to the planned housing community for residents aged 55 and older.
“I just want people to know what is going to be there,” Thibodeau said, adding he would like to have a walk through Baxter Woods and the potential building and parking lot sites marked by balloons that would also give a sense of the structure height.
The housing project, proposed by Sea Coast at Baxter Woods Associates principals John Wasileski, Matthew Teare and Kevin Bunker, has twice been reduced in scope.
Most recently, the developers agreed to eliminate 80 housing units last summer before the City Council approved zoning that allows higher population density.
What is now planned is the conversion of the former St. Joseph’s Convent, or “Motherhouse,” into 88 studio or one-bedroom units and construction of five new buildings containing 161 housing units on open land beside and behind the former convent.
The new zoning waschallenged in Cumberland County Superior court by Friends of the Motherhouse, specifically neighbors Raymond Foote and Barbara Weed, who argued councilors should have approved a contract zone that would have more specific applications for land use.
On April 19, Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren ruled against Friends of the Motherhouse, saying the City Council approval was consistent with the city Comprehensive Plan and amendments made to the R5A zoning requirements meant a contract zone was not required.
Sea Coast at Baxter Woods intends to phase in development. Planning Board members have been reviewing the master development plan as opposed to individual site plans, but Bunker said April 28 that there is little difference in the layout.
“This is very close in terms of how buildings look on site and how parking is arranged,” he said.
Teare and Bunker expect the Planning Board to hold a public hearing and vote on the master development plan in June.
The conversion of the Motherhouse is already approved by the Planning Board and is expected to begin in July. Bunker said 66 of the 88 units will meet affordable housing guidelines.
First, Sea Coast needs to close the deal with the Rhode Island-based Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Northeast Community. Teare and Bunker declined to disclose the purchase price, but said they will offer a 25-year lease for what is now Catherine MacAuley High School.
The school will change its name by July as it will no longer be affiliated with the Sisters of Mercy, and construction plans include using one of the school’s athletic fields.
Plans call for a four-story building closest to the Motherhouse, with four more at five stories, with parking underneath.
“Most of what we are hearing about is Baxter Woods,” Bunker said of feedback from neighbors and the Planning Board.
Thibodeau agreed the key point in planning now is how three buildings will affect the view from Baxter Woods, a 29.5-acre preserve given to the city in 1946 by then-Gov. Percival Baxter. The land had been bought by his father, former Mayor James Phinney Baxter.
Teare and Bunker noted the buildings are set back well beyond the required 14 feet from the boundary with Baxter Woods.
“We have pulled the buildings well away from the woods to deal with perceived concerns,” Bunker said.
The measurement includes 33 feet of a right of way bisected by the fence line, and Thibodeau said he prefers to shift the buildings closest to the fence to the center of the property.
“The point we are making is the woods begin at the fence line,” he said. “If this current master plan drawing goes through it will be a significant change from a pastoral experience to an urban park experience.”
Bunker and Teare said the development will not only respect Baxter Woods, it could enhance the health of the preserve through a better stormwater management plan. If possible, Teare said they would also try to eliminate parking lots about 15 feet from the fence line, included now because the zoning requires two spaces per unit.
“We are very open to the possibility of removing those lots,” Teare said.
The developers have also agreed to a city monitoring program of how construction, which could take five years, will affect Baxter Woods and how the preserve is used.
Thibodeau praised the plan, but suggested it should extend beyond the construction phase.
Neighbors of the former St. Joseph’s convent on Stevens Avenue in Portland, seen April 29, are concerned about how new housing construction will affect views from Baxter Woods.