Portland's housing challenges put pressure on city councilors

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PORTLAND — City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau on Monday said his first big council vote will resonate with him for a long time.

“I told my colleagues I will probably remember that vote forever, one way or another,” he said about voting Jan. 20 in favor of a zoning change for a proposed office complex at 1945 Congress St.

Thibodeau, in his first term representing District 2, was part of the majority in the 6-3 vote in favor of the change. The approval came despite opposition from neighbors of the property, who say housing is a better fit. The parcel is now home to the Portland Elks Lodge.

To Thibodeau’s left in council chambers, Councilor Belinda Ray of District 1 opposed the zoning change, joining Councilors Nick Mavodones Jr. and Jill Duson in the belief the dearth of city housing should have precluded the zoning change.

All four councilors, plus Councilor David Brenerman, will meet at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday as the Housing Committee created by Mayor Ethan Strimling and chaired by Duson.

With vacancies almost nonexistent on the city peninsula and rental costs increasing more than wages do, Strimling promised 2,000 new housing units in the next five years.

He said Jan. 22 he expects the committee to move quickly on finding ways to develop housing solutions.

“We are not going to spend months and months on data gathering,” he said. “I think we know what the situation is.”

The zoning question at 1945 Congress St. was also viewed by Strimling and Ray as an initial test of the council’s commitment to expand housing stock, but the end result reflected their differing perspectives.

“I think it is a good use for the site in the end. It will help us keep good jobs in the city that pays good wages,” Strimling said of the office zoning that will allow development of headquarters for Clark Insurance. A second building will have medical offices.

Northland Enterprises, which will buy the Elks property and allow the lodge to remain, must file master and specific site plans to be approved by the Planning Board, city Planning & Urban Development Director Jeff Levine said Jan. 22. The plans can be filed simultaneously.

The zoning change vote came after several postponements last fall, and after Levine and his staff provided more details about development in the Stroudwater area.

The zoning proposal presented by opponents of the zoning change was hypothetical, but a white paper prepared by Levine showed the 7-acre parcel could hold up to as many as 273 housing units, depending on what zoning was applied.

Levine also noted the access to the site is a road owned by Unum, not the city, and the site sits closer to areas developed commercially than the residential development that has occurred closer to Congress, Garrison and Westbrook streets.

Ray was among the councilors asking for more information about the site and its potential.

“We should not be lightly taking land that is zoned residential out of the residential zone,” she said.

Thibodeau said voting on zoning changes based on whether the land can be used for housing could set a bad precedent.

“We can’t just focus on housing in a vacuum,” he said. “We still have to focus on finding jobs for the folks who live here.”

Progress toward Strimling’s goal could become evident this year. The Federated Cos. is poised to begin construction on the “Midtown” mixed-use development project on Somerset Street, which could add 440 market-rate housing units.

The Planning Board has also approved a plan by former City Councilor John Anton to convert the former Schlotterbeck & Foss building at 117 Preble St. into 55 one-bedroom and studio units.

This week, the site of the former El Rayo Taquiera restaurant on York Street was razed to make way for a mixed-use development containing more than 60 apartments. On the West End, Avesta Housing is seeking to build a complex with 35 units on Carleton Street.

In East Bayside, developer Jonathan Culley is constructing a 50-unit development at 89 Anderson St. Culley is also constructing a six-story, 130-unit apartment house at 667 Congress St., the site of the former Joe’s Smoke Shop.

Off the peninsula, the land around the former St. Joseph’s Convent and the convent at 655 Stevens Ave. are slated to become about 240 housing units marketed to residents age 55 and older. The convent will contain about 90 affordable housing units, according to plans by developers.

Thibodeau said he also worries about a potential housing glut coming, but Ray said what is planned is not yet enough.

“The fact we have these potential developments should not allow us to rest on this point,” she said. “It is not enough to have the idea.”

Strimling, Thibodeau and Ray agreed they would prefer to see housing occupy the stretch of Forest Avenue between Baxter Boulevard and Preble Street Extension as opposed to a proposed new CVS store.

The city Historic Preservation Board is considering a request by attorney Sandra Guay, who represents CVS, to demolish the row of buildings from 355 to 375 Forest Ave. to build the store. The board may consider nominating several of the buildings, which house Palmer Spring Co., Forest Gardens and David Munster’s TV, as landmark sites. It has already determined that buildings at 365 and 375 Forest Ave. do not meet criteria to become landmarks.

Any landmark designations require City Council approval.

“That is perhaps not the best use in the terms of the greater good of the city,” Strimling said.

The stretch of Forest Avenue is essentially the boundary between Districts 1 and 2, and Ray and Thibodeau said they want to see housing created.

“I think there has been a statement of vision for Forest Avenue that seeks multi-level, multi-use buildings,” Ray said.

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

The El Rayo Taqueria building at 101 York St. in Portland was reduced to rubble this week to make way for a five-story apartment building property owner J.B. Brown & Sons plans to build on the site of the old gas station that El Rayo had occupied since 2009. El Rayo’s owners, who closed the restaurant last fall, have said they plan to reopen at 26 Free St. this year.

Proposed plans to demolish this row of Forest Avenue buildings for a CVS store are opposed by Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and some city councilors.

On. Jan. 20, Portland city councilors approved a zoning change to allow office buildings to be built on the site of the Portland Elks Lodge at 1945 Congress St.

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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.
  • William Linnell

    This may not be over. Levine’s paper showed the viability of the site for housing, but his paper was not produced until just before the meeting. The neither the Council, nor the public had access to that document in advance. That’s wrong. That’s something that you might expect in Chicago politics, not in Maine.
    And if there’s going to be a zoning change, the applicant should have to demonstrate that there is a problem with the existing zoning, not just claim that there’s more money and “jobs” available if they can have their way. Like I said, this may not be over yet.

  • chrisrushlau

    I don’t think there is any content to the legal concept of zoning. How do you measure the human need for, say, food, in terms of land-use? Should there be a free cafeteria every half mile? The Supreme Court in the original Euclid decision said that children should not grow up in the shadow of factories. Why not? There already was law about not polluting your neighbors, under the heading of nuisance. So zoning replaces nuisance law with, what, free-for-all politics?