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- The Forecaster
PORTLAND — The residential and retail complex known as Midtown was approved unanimously by the Planning Board on Tuesday night, after a five-hour public hearing, five years after it was proposed.
But conditions attached to the site plan approval will still require Miami-based Federated Cos. to resubmit portions of the plan before construction can begin on the project that promises to change the face of the Bayside neighborhood.
Federated principal Jonathan Cox did not attend the meeting, but attorney Patrick Venne said the mixed decision will require more discussion.
“We were hopeful a decision would be made, but we will have to review and formulate,” Venne said of requirements to resubmit sketches of the largest of three residential and retail buildings.
The vote marked the second time the Planning Board approved the mixed-use project proposed for a former scrapyard on Somerset Street, between Pearl and Elm streets. The project is centered at the intersection of Somerset and Chestnut streets, but extends toward Whole Foods to the east and Trader Joe’s to the west.
In January 2014, Planning Board members approved a project calling for four 14-story towers and two parking garages. A lawsuit filed in Cumberland County Superior Court challenged city zoning laws and cited violations of state and federal environmental laws, preventing construction from starting.
On Tuesday, a scaled-down project with 445 housing units spread through three buildings of six stories each was approved. A seven-story, 828-space parking garage is also part of the project. The project also plans for 91,500 square feet of retail space, spread through the first floor of each of the structures.
Peter Monro, a co-founder with Tim Paradis of Keep Portland Liveable, which opposed the original plans and joined in the lawsuit, supported the revised plans and praised Tuesday’s vote.
“This is what we hoped would happen,” Monro said. “Namely they are applying the standards which they should have applied in then first place.”
The board granted a variety of waivers for the project, which Venne said will have 120 studio residences, 135 one-bedroom units and 190 two-bedroom units, all available at market rates. It balked at a waiver on design standards for the 430-foot long structure known as Midtown Three.
Board members Carol Morrissette and Jack Soley were particularly critical of the design, saying the renderings did not do enough to meet city design standards for the B-7 zone.
“I’m seeing an overall a product that is not sensitively designed,” Soley said. “I’m not seeing something compelling as an architectural statement.”
Design standards for buildings of that length are set to ensure exteriors are not “monolithic,” take on a “human scale” and maintain “visually interesting” roof lines.
Morrissette said building elements were insufficient to meet those design standards, and reminded Venne that Midtown will be visible to people driving by on Interstate 295.
“You have such an opportunity to have a beautiful gateway building,” she said.
Morrissette was apologetic to new project architect Tom House, but she, Soley and Chairman Stuart O’Brien all noted the length and exterior of Midtown Three has been a source of contention in the five workshops and hearings that have been held on the revised project.
While preferring the Midtown Three building actually be split into two buildings, Board members said they understood this is not feasible and are ready to work around it. Venne said any full break in the building would come at a cost of at least four housing units per floor.
The board also objected to the use of some exterior materials, noting lightweight exterior insulation panels also violate design standards. Federated will also have to return to the board with more details about building materials before moving forward.
In November 2014, Cox said the smaller project is scheduled to be built in one phase at about half the original $160 million estimate. Federated will buy the land from the city for $2.4 million. The city will also pay the $9 million estimated cost for the parking garage, and fund about two-thirds of the $4 million cost of elevating Somerset Street above projected Federal Emergency Management Agency flood levels.
The planned elevation of Somerset Street from Pearl to Elm streets also concerned members of the Noyes family, who own a warehouse across the street from the development site.
Bo Kennedy, an engineer with Faye, Spofford & Thorndike, said a drainage concern has been addressed by adding catch basins along Somerset Street, while also creating an esplanade at the street and slightly angling sidewalks outside the Noyes warehouse to drain water away from the building.
Kennedy also said plans call for storm water retention and drainage to prevent possible flooding on adjacent Marginal Way properties.