'Reality check' stalls plan for art studios at South Portland's Willard Square

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Plans to bring an arts studio and cafe to Willard Square have been put on hold.

Instead, an old house at the corner of Preble and Willow streets, once envisioned as a cultural center for local artists, is expected to become a two-unit residence, according to Planning and Development Director Tax Haeuser.

Meanwhile, efforts to comprehensively rezone Willard Square, a budding neighborhood market area, have now been absorbed into the city’s comprehensive zoning process, which is expected to take months, if not years, to complete.

For years, Lisa Foster, a resident of London, England, has been trying to convert the old two-story home left to her by her grandmother into an arts studio and cultural center.

Those plans, however, have experienced repeated setbacks.

Most recently, after paying a company to reposition the house, Foster was told her studio wouldn’t fit the zoning and would require an amendment, even though she helped lead an effort to rezone Willard Square for studio uses in 2006.

Foster was then told that her project would require a full – and costly – site plan review and that she needed to add more parking. Those delays held up financing, she said last July.

In October, the city held a public forum about rezoning Willard Square to remove those obstacles and others, not only for Foster’s project, but for a large mixed-use building proposed at the corner of Preble and Pillsbury streets.

But Haeuser said the rezoning effort would be better handled by the Comprehensive Planning Committee, which is reworking the citywide document.

“It makes it more questionable whether the community should pursue another Willard Square zone when the design standards may apply to the whole city,” Haeuser said.

Noting there is “still a need” for an arts and cultural center, Haeuser said Foster has subdivided her grandmother’s old property and sold a lot to help finance a new building on Preble Street that would house the art studio and cultural center.

The original concept would have included an artist co-op, where people could rent studio space by day and take fine art classes by night. An arts cafe, serving beer and wine, was also planned as a meeting place for artists, who could show their work in a small gallery.

Foster later proposed a small, indoor farmer’s market, too.

But now, Foster, who hoped to have the studios open by last summer, said in an e-mail that she is questioning whether to move forward, in part because of a few neighbors who opposed the project.

“For us, the joy has gone from the project,” Foster said. “So (while) not hitting a wall, we have had a reality check and will not impose our vision on our (neighbors).”

Although the zone change has been tabled, Haeuser said the city could still decide to move it forward before the Comp Plan is complete, especially if developer Paul Leddy formally submits his plans for a three-story mixed-use building, which may include a restaurant with outdoor seating, a retail store and residential condominiums.

“It would not be impossible to proceed with a Willard Square zoning update,” Haeuser said.

Meanwhile, Foster said she will continue to work with the city to rezone the area, in case the art studio becomes more viable in the future.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net