PORTLAND — Developers seeking city approvals to start work on what would ultimately be a $150-million, four-tower, two-parking garage project in the city’s Bayside neighborhood will have to wait at least a bit longer.
Approaching the fifth hour of discussion – after 50 people spoke either for or against the project – the Planning Board decided not to vote as scheduled on the controversial so-called Midtown project.
With more than an hour of discourse remaining for board members, both in response to questions raised by members of the public and in deliberation among themselves, Chairwoman Carol Morrissette told developers and audience members alike nearing 10 p.m. that the panel will have to postpone its vote on the subject.
Nearly two and a half years after the city entered into a purchase and sale agreement with developers for the lot in question, about 14 months after the first plans for the site were unveiled publicly and after seven Planning Board workshops or meetings on the proposal, those hoping to learn the fate of the high-profile project will have to wait.
Going into the meeting Tuesday, the board had been expected to decide at long last whether to give the project site plan and subdivision approvals. With the latest delay Tuesday, the board is now planning to vote on the project at its Jan. 14 meeting.
Developers from The Federated Cos. of Florida are pursuing site plan approval for the first phase of the project: a 165-foot-tall, 235-unit apartment building with nearly 44,000 square feet of space on the lower floors for restaurants and shops, and a nearby parking garage that will be 75 feet high and include 700 spaces. Estimated costs for the first phase are between $45 million and $50 million.
They are concurrently seeking the city’s larger master development plan designation that would lay the proverbial groundwork for the next two phases.
By the time the proposed Midtown project is complete, after a decade’s worth of construction and $150 million, the complex would include 1.16 million square feet of building space, including 700,000 square feet of residential space, 100,000 square feet of retail and more than 1,100 garage parking spaces.
If permitted, the development will occupy the stretch of Somerset Street between Elm Street and what will be an extension of Pearl Street, bisected by Chestnut Street. The largely undeveloped city-owned area was formerly industrial scrapyards.
“It has the potential to transform the neighborhood in largely a positive way,” said Sean Kerwin, a Bayside Neighborhood Association board member who stressed that he wasn’t speaking for the group, Tuesday night. “There are very few places in Maine where buildings of this height and mass are appropriate, but the heart of Bayside is one of them.”
Opponents of the project, led by local residents Tim Paradis and Peter Monro, have organized under the group name Keep Portland Livable, arguing the development is too massive for a smaller city like Portland, and will create uncomfortable winds and long shadows in the Bayside neighborhood.
Paradis on Tuesday night handed board members the signatures of 335 Greater Portland residents who oppose the project.
Edgeworth Avenue resident Jessica Moore was one of several Portlanders to speak out Tuesday night against the project, calling it “relatively uninspired and generic” and saying it would be better suited for Miami or Boston.
Alex Evans, who told the board he moved to Portland from New Jersey about 18 months ago, called the project a “blocky disaster.”
“What this building looks like to me – and trust me, I know, because I see it every time I go home to visit my parents – is the next Newark,” he said.
But the developers defended the project, showing computer models of the winds and shadows to be created by the buildings Tuesday night. The models showed winds never reaching the 27 mph speed considered dangerous for pedestrians, and rarely hitting the 19 mph speed described by industry experts as “uncomfortable” for walkers.
“There are no dangerous wind conditions predicted at any location on this project, and that suitable wind conditions will be found along sidewalks and the [nearby] Bayside Trail,” project architect David Hancock said. “From March through September, there’s very little shadow on the trail.”
Hancock acknowledged that during winter mornings, the tower shadows could stretch as far as Interstate 295 about two blocks away, but noted that the sun goes down by 4 p.m. in the heart of winter and much of every 24-hour period is dark anyway.
Monro countered that the modeling data presented by developers did not include what the specific wind speeds would be, only that they would be under certain thresholds. He said winds reaching 16 mph – considered uncomfortable for pedestrians sitting or standing – now occur 15 percent of the time in the winter and 8 percent of the time in the summer, and taller buildings would only increase that frequency.
Monro continued on to argue that the project unnecessarily encroaches on what is now public sidewalk space, squeezing those walkways to 5 feet in width. He urged city planners to demand 12-foot sidewalks around the project.
The project is being proposed against a backdrop of booming development in both the city and Bayside neighborhood in particular. Five new hotels are planned for Portland in the coming few years and one other, the former Eastland Park Hotel, underwent a nearly $40-million renovation and is slated to reopen this month.
In Bayside over the past decade, private developers have poured $140 million into projects south of Interstate 295. That includes a $15 million Whole Foods Market and $26.5 million 10-story headquarters for the health care company InterMed, both of which will be within a short walk of the proposed Midtown project.
“Bayside is growing,” Robert Metcalf, landscape architect for the project, told the board Tuesday night. “This project will bring life to support that in terms of residential density.”
In April, the City Council approved zoning changes that would allow the Midtown towers to be built to a height of 165 feet, 40 feet higher than the previous limit.