South Portland agency's plan for affordable housing in Thornton Heights divides City Council

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City coucilors on Tuesday agreed affordable housing is a critical need in the city, but were lukewarm about a $9 million, 42-unit building proposed in Thornton Heights. 

In a workshop, councilors suggested the project proposed by the city Housing Authority may be too large to receive full support. 

The authority is under contract to purchase the 2-acre property at 611 Main St. – the former St. John the Evangelist Church – from Cafua Management for $1.2 million. Cafua is the Methuen, Massachusetts-based company that bought the property in 2013 with the aim of building a drive-through Dunkin’ Donuts. The proposal was abandoned after it provoked vigorous opposition from neighborhood residents.

Brooks More, SPHA director of development, told the council that affordable housing is a critical need in the city, with families of moderate incomes, individuals with disabilities and the elderly seeking stable housing. More said some families have been on the agency’s waiting list for nearly two years. 

The property, including the former church, parish house and a school building, has been vacant for four years.

The agency wants the city to rezone the rear acre of the lot, which is in a Residential A zone, to conform with the rest of the lot, which is in the Maine Street Community Commercial zone.

An informal vote of 4-2 indicated councilors may support the zoning change, although formal passage of the change requires five affirmative votes. Councilor Eben Rose was absent from the workshop.

The plan will now go to the city’s Planning Board. 

Mayor Linda Cohen said although she supports public housing, the location at 611 Main St. may not be ideal  for such a project.

Councilor Kate Lewis said she would prefer a smaller-scale project, but added she is concerned that a hotel developer could move in and purchase the property. “I’m worried about the future if we don’t pursue housing there,” Lewis said. 

The housing authority will apply for a federal low-income housing tax credit program to help fund the project. More said four applications are usually selected each year, based on a point system for specific criteria, including the cost to build each unit.

He said the building will not be financially viable unless it includes at least 40 units.

In meetings with the housing authority several Thorton Heights residents have opposed the project, asserting it will disrupt the character of their neighborhood and cause problems with traffic and density. Others have said they support public housing, and are open to ideas presented by the housing authority. 

“This is our reality. We have a quiet neighborhood – if you drop an industrial- looking building into the neighborhood, it will reduce our quality of life,” Thirlmere Road resident Beth McKeen told the council.

Resident Laurie Carr, now a homeowner, said she was a former occupant of public housing, and it allowed her, as a single parent, to be an active community member and afford getting a college degree. She said affordable housing is needed in the city and that it allowed her to build a life for herself and for her two children, whom she was able to send to college. 

Several residents said single-family homes would be a better fit in the neighborhood, and expressed disappointment the 1960s-era church will be razed.

Residents have met three times with the South Portland Housing Authority to ask questions and express concerns about the project. 

To qualify for affordable housing, a single person would need to make no more than $28,000 per year, and a family of four would have an annual income limit of $41,000.

Rents would range from $770 per month for a one-bedroom apartment to $1,081 for a three-bedroom unit, More said. 

Resident Joyce Mendoza told the council the neighborhood fought the zoning change when a Dunkin’ Donuts was proposed in order to protect the residential character of the neighborhood. She said the neighborhood and streets, designed in the 1920s, are too narrow and will not support such a large-scale project, and urged the council to protect the current zoning. 

Councilor Adrian Dowling said he believes the size is appropriate for the Route 1 location, although he added he is sensitive to neighbors’ concerns about density and traffic. 

If the SPHA plan moves forward, construction could begin as early as fall 2019, with completion a year later. 

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext.,106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net.

St. John’s Church at 611 Main St. is eyed for redevelopment. The South Portland Housing Authority is under contract to purchase the 2-acre property for about $1.2 million. 

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