Portland neighbors oppose Elks-to-offices change on Congress Street

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PORTLAND — Another proposed zoning change, this time for seven acres of property on outer Congress Street, is being contested by neighbors.

On Tuesday, Sept. 8, the Planning Board will be asked to recommend a zoning change for Portland Elks Lodge No. 188 at 1945 Congress St., to allow construction of two office buildings totaling 40,000 square feet.

The request, made by Northland Enterprises, is opposed by the neighborhood association.

“The Stroudwater Village Association remains opposed to any one-off rezoning of the parcel at 1945 Congress St., or for that matter any other individual parcel in the neighborhood area, until a comprehensive visioning process for the neighborhood is undertaken,” the association board of directors said in a recent, undated letter to the Planning Board.

Northland has an agreement to buy the land for $1.25 million. Although more than 10,000 square feet of the Elks building will be demolished, reducing it to 13,000 square feet, the fraternal organization will continue to meet at the site.

Northland principal Josh Benthian said Aug. 28 the zoning change is critical to the purchase, and two tenants are already interested in the buildings.

A 15,000-square-foot building is planned to front Congress Street, and would be occupied by the Age Management Center headed by Dr. Michael Bedecs. A two-story, 25,000-square-foot building closer to an existing access road to Unum will become the new headquarters for Clark Insurance, Benthian said.

Northland Enterprises also redeveloped the former Baxter Library on downtown Congress Street.

If given a favorable recommendation, the zoning change would be forwarded to the City Council for a final vote. The project would still require site plan approval from the Planning Board.

At the heart of the impending decision are countering interpretations of the city Comprehensive Plan and whether the zoning change is in “basic harmony” with the plan.

In its application to the Planning Board, Northland attorney John C. Bannon argues the Comprehensive Plan calls for office park development in the outlying areas of the city, to diversify the economy, and for developing commercial enterprises within existing neighborhood centers.

Neighbors have objected to the zoning change request since January, when resident David Silk of Westbrook Street said the Comprehensive Plan also calls for more housing development.

“In contrast to to the applicant’s proposed multi-story professional office buildings, single-family detached residential uses in these areas would cause less of an impact on already overburdened roads,” Silk said in a Jan. 14 letter.

Benthian and business partner Rex Bell said housing is an unrealistic use for the Elks property, which since 1968 has been classified as a “place of assembly” within a residential zone.

“If housing was the best option, we’d be all over it,” Benthian said. “We are not reducing housing, we are reducing hypothetical housing.”

Stroudwater Village Association members are also concerned that a zoning change will set a precedent that allows other property owners to sell without the city taking a deeper look at how development should proceed.

“We are discussing what we want an area of the city we love to look like in 2, 5, 10, 20 years – coincidentally at the same time that the City is revising the Comprehensive Plan and we are working with our neighbors at the Jetport on their Sustainability Master Plan,” the association’s most recent letter said.

The zoning change request is the third to be contested in the city this year.

A change that would allow redevelopment of the former Portland Co. complex at 58 Fore St. could be amended by the passage of a Nov. 3 referendum question.

A proposed zoning change to allow higher population density for a planned housing project for people 55 and older at the former St. Joseph’s Convent at 605 Stevens Ave. was passed by councilors in July, after developers also agreed to reduce the size of the project.

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

Two office buildings are proposed for the seven acres of land at 1945 Congress St. in Portland. The Stroudwater Village Association opposes a zoning change for the project.

Northland Enterprises submitted this sketch for two new office buildings at 1945 Congress St., where the Portland Elks Lodge will remain.

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.