Smaller Midtown project returns to Portland Planning Board

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PORTLAND — A revised plan by Miami-based Federated Cos. to redevelop 3.5 acres of city land on Somerset Street in Bayside was back in front of the Planning Board on Nov. 12.

Whether you call it Midtown 2.0, or Midtown v.2, it is smaller, less expensive, and seems to satisfy its opponents.

“The size and scale is not what we originally wanted, but we are hopeful this will act as a catalyst for development in the neighborhood we think will be the next best neighborhood in Portland,” Federated founder and Chairman Jonathan Cox said Tuesday.

If all goes according to the tentative schedule outlined by city senior planner Rick Knowland, revised plans could be ready for a public hearing and Planning Board approval on Jan. 13, 2015, about a year after the board approved the initial larger plan.

Reduced to four six-story buildings from the original four 15-story structures, and with one parking garage removed, the project now has an estimated $85 million cost, down from as much as $160 million, Cox said.

The revised development can be constructed in one phase using wood-frame construction instead of steel. It is a more sustainable method that will be more energy efficient; keeping 87,000 square feet of commercial space was critical, Cox said.

Planning Board Chairman Stuart O’Brien said the project will face the same scrutiny as the one previously approved by the Planning Board.

“I wouldn’t anticipate any less rigorous review of this proposal than the previous,” he said.

Cox said the first workshop was a re-introduction to a contentious project he wants very much to complete.

“It is too early to tell,” he said. “We are kind of in the exploratory phase where the Planning Board is understanding the project. We have always been committed to the project and remain committed to the project.”

A second workshop is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 9.

Tim Paradis, a co-founder of Keep Portland Livable, which fought the Midtown project in hearings and Cumberland County Superior Court, said Monday he is pleased with the revised plans.

“We welcome the redesign,” he said. “We are supportive, it is significantly more in line with the way the community feels Bayside ought to be developed.”

The revised project reduces building heights from a maximum of 165 feet to 72 feet, and requires an 800-space, seven-story, $9 million parking garage to be built at city expense. The garage would be the tallest building in the development, at 92 feet.

The total number of residences, ranging from market-rate studio spaces of 400 square feet to two-bedroom units of 1,050 square feet, has been reduced from 650 to 440.

Cox said he anticipates the commercial space will be leased by service companies, restaurants and entertainment.

“We want to serve residents of Midtown, neighborhood residents and finally, the broader community,” he said.

The address is listed as 59 Somerset St., but the Midtown footprint extends from the Pearl Street extension to Whole Foods Market, to the parking lot behind Trader Joe’s at Elm Street.

Cox said the reduced scale means Midtown can be built in one phase, instead of three over the next decade.

After the Planning Board approved the project last Jan. 14, a lawsuit was filed Feb. 12 in Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland naming Federated, its subsidiary Legacy Park Apartments, and the city as co-defendants.

The suit was filed by Bayside property owners and architect Peter Monro, a co-founder of Keep Portland Livable. Monro was later dismissed from the suit by Justice Thomas Warren for a lack of legal standing in the case.

The lawsuit is now on hold, but Paradis said its arguments “had sufficient weight to encourage the developers and the city to come to the table.”

Plaintiffs argued the previous plan ignored a master plan for neighborhood development incorporated 15 years ago in the city Comprehensive Plan. They also said the city did not follow state and federal environmental regulations regarding construction in flood-prone areas.

The city will pay two-thirds of the $4 million needed to elevate Somerset Street by 2 feet. About $670,000 of the funding comes from a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development loan. Federated will pay $1.3 million for street work, on top of a $2.4 million for the land. The city will also pay $9 million to build the parking garage, now expanded to 800 spaces.

Paradis said he is pleased about raising the street, but added the city needs to be more aware of the potential hazards sea level changes may bring to Bayside.

The suit also may bring needed changes in the way the city handles meeting records and Planning Board submissions, Paradis said.

In an Oct. 17 letter to Monro, city Planning Director Jeff Levine said he will propose the Planning Board require 3-D renderings in site plan applications and more clarity on requirements for wind studies in construction.

Levine added the city will look into installing video equipment in City Hall Room 209, which is used for workshops, and whether to expand recording in City Council chambers to include Planning Board meetings.

Paradis praised changes all the way around.

“We never wanted the developer to go away,” he said. “We wanted this to be a piece of the larger regeneration of the neighborhood.”

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

A revised sketch for the proposed Midtown project on Somerset Street presented to a Planning Board workshop Nov. 12. Developers have scaled back building heights from 165 feet to 72 feet and the number of residences from 650 to 440.

City-owned land along Somerset Street from Pearl to Elm streets could become the site for Midtown, a retail and residential development project back in front of the city Planning Board. A public hearing on the development is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 15, 2015.

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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.