Portland orders a do-over on proposals for redevelopment of former school

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PORTLAND — Following opposition from neighborhood residents, city officials are revising a request for proposals to develop the vacant Thomas B. Reed School.

In a letter to City Manager Jon Jennings, Senior Planner Christine Grimando said planners want to modify the RFP process. The city issued requests for qualifications last summer, and received responses from two developers, both looking to turn the empty school into housing for senior citizens.

The city is now proposing an RFP where, ultimately, the developer and a neighborhood group would work together throughout the planning process, largely because of neighborhood backlash to the earlier proposals.

City officials will present the newest RFP at a neighborhood meeting at Riverton Elementary School on March 29 at 6 p.m.

City Councilor David Brenerman, who co-chaired the Reed School Reuse Advisory Task Force, said he, Jennings and the Planning Department want to find a way to have the neighborhood more involved in the project. Brenerman also said rather than having the city change the zoning to allow certain kinds of housing units and requesting historic designation for the building, those specifics will be left up to the chosen developer.

“We’re trying to provide more flexibility for … the developer, and to have a project that is economically feasible and acceptable to the greatest number of people,” Brenerman said.

The new RFP would not prescribe any particular uses for the building; the chosen developer could conceivably tear down the former school to make way for single-family homes.

Resident Elise Scala, who was also on the task force, said she and other neighbors were invited to speak with Grimando and Jennings about the changes last week. She said the only terms in the new RFP would be that the developer would have to be willing to work with neighbors.

“What they were offering for a process is that Christine is redrafting a very different RFP that will go out to wider population to invite a developer to the project,” Scala said.

Scala will chair the neighborhood group that will work with the developer.

Grimando on Thursday said redrafting the RFP was a response to feedback from neighbors. She said rather than try to fit every detail into the RFP, they decided to make it more flexible, although a proposal must still be a viable project in order to be considered.

“We’re just going to wait and see and hope we get good responses,” Grimando said, adding that the proposals received so far were good and still viable, and seeking more proposals was not a reflection on either project.

Brenerman said it was his hope to get the RFP out “as soon as possible,” adding that sometime in the spring would be ideal.

“I think the city would prefer not having to continue to pay for the upkeep of this building,” he said, listing costs such as heat in the winter, along with minimal maintenance and upkeep for the facilities. “If we could have this building sold by the end of the year that would be perfect, but this could be a long process.”

The two developers that responded to the RFQ included a collaboration between Avesta Housing and Developers Collaborative LLC, along with a project idea from  Community Housing of Maine. Brenerman said he hopes the two developers will continue to remain interested.

Neighbors pushed back against the size of the two prospective projects. Both initially sought to make use of an affordable housing density bonus, which would have allowed 25 percent more units, and each were looking for at least 45 units of housing. City planners ultimately decided not to allow the density bonus, and capped the number of units at 36. However, that was still considered too many by neighbors, including Scala.

The 34,000-square-foot building, which was built in the 1920s, is in the R-3 zone, as the neighborhood is almost exclusively single-family homes. The city had originally sought to change the zoning to R-5 to allow multi-family housing for the site of the school, which sits on about 2.5 acres. Grimando said developers could still seek a zone change or historical preservation, but the city would not take the lead on those endeavors.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Reusing the vacant Thomas B. Reed School at 28 Homestead Ave. in Portland has been the subject of discussion for over a year.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.