South Portland airs plan to revitalize West End

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SOUTH PORTLAND  — A plan to revitalize the West End that highlights improved streets and sidewalks, new recreational opportunities and keeping the area affordable was presented Monday at a City Council workshop.

The plan encompassing the Redbank and Brick Hill neighborhoods and parts of Westbrook Street and Western Avenue includes an earlier public-private proposal to build affordable housing.

However, zoning changes are necessary to adopt some of the recommendations. Councilors would have to formally adopt the plan and authorize the zoning changes.

During the workshop, councilors also discussed “paper” streets and marijuana licensing.

The West End Neighborhood Master Plan highlights five objectives, including neighborhood connectivity, regional access for residents, sustainability, increasing recreation and open space, and developing a neighborhood center.

The city’s Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee began working on the proposal about six months ago with help from the Greater Portland Council of Governments. The study cost $30,000 and was sourced from the city’s Capital Improvement Program and a Community Development Block Grant.

The plan presented by GPCOG characterizes the West End as “a tightly knit, diverse community with a mix of apartments, townhouses and duplex homes. There is a very active and engaged neighborhood association, regular community dinners, after-school programs, and groups for English-language learners.

“The availability of both market-rate and subsidized affordable housing makes this area appealing to young families, seniors and recent immigrants,” report continues. “Of the nearly 3,000 residents in the neighborhood, over 90 percent are renters. The community also values its local street network with low traffic  volumes, access to parks, playgrounds, and trails, and the strong local job market.”

The plan calls for making the West End a safer and easier place to walk, bike and drive by improving roads, building sidewalks and crosswalks and improving access for bicyclists. Improving regional access for residents would allow easier access to schools, employment and services using all forms of transportation.

The plan also calls for zoning changes and affordable housing tax increment financing to help new businesses.

Increasing recreation and open space would mean enhancing the trail network, improving access to the water and more programming for recreation. programming. Included in recreation are a public swimming pool and satellite city offices.

Creating a neighborhood center calls for redeveloping “the triangle” – a strip of land on Westbrook Street between Brickhill and Redbank – into a more vibrant neighborhood center with community gathering spaces and streetscape improvements.

During the workshop, City Manager Scott Morelli announced that paving work for Westbrook Street has already been scheduled for the fall.

City councilors seemed pleased with the plan, the process and the community involvement in the master plan.

“I have been so impressed by the people involved,” Councilor Brad Fox said.  “The incredible part is everyone really listened to what everyone in the neighborhood wanted. It is really reflective of what people wanted … The people in the neighborhood are in favor and would like to see it (the master plan) adopted.”

Affordable housing

As part of the plan, a mixed-use building is being proposed by Avesta Housing and a local convenience store owner.

Avesta Housing and Quang Nguyen, owner of Le Variety, want to create a mixed-use building that could include apartments for 130-140 residents.

In June, the city approved using $86,000 from the its Revolving Loan Fund Program for Nguyen to purchase a vacant quarter-acre lot at 600 Westbrook St., next to his store at 586 Westbrook St.

The development calls for a multi-story building with housing on the upper floors and retail on the first floor facing Westbrook Street.

Le Variety would move to part of the first floor. Discussions for the remaining first floor include making it a  permanent home for the Neighborhood Resource Hub and the possibility of a business incubator, which would fulfill the West End Master Plan goal for a neighborhood center.

The housing project could be partially funded by Maine Housing Authority’s Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. Avesta plans to submit an application for the program, but is asking the city to create Affordable Housing Tax Increment Financing for the project to help it score better.

Councilors said they were in favor and it will be discussed and voted on at a future meeting, which will include a public hearing.

Paper Streets

Councilors on Monday discussed vacating 13 paper streets, which are byways that are shown on subdivision plans, but were never built or accepted as a public way.

In 1997, the City Council extended the automatic vacation of about 80 paper streets, after a Maine law stipulated that Maine cities had 20 years – until Sept. 29 – to decide how to proceed.

The city can postpone a decision for another 20 years, but earlier this summer city officials asked staff and residents to review the unused byways and recommend whether each should be vacated or continued for another 20 years.

Planning Director Tex Haeuser reviewed staff and public comments and compiled a list of 13 paper streets that City staff think should be vacated. The council will vote on the issue at a future meeting.

If the council votes to vacate the paper streets the city will no longer have public rights to the street and the interest in the street passes to the abutters to the centerline of the street, unless the original owners reserved the title.

The city is considering vacating Spruce and Hobson streets, Glendale and Loraine avenues and a portion of Rosedale Avenue, part of Prides Road and Coolridge Avenue, an unnamed road near Lawn Avenue, part of Hunnewell Road between Skillings Street and Cash Street, unnamed streets between Bonnybank Terrace and Romano Road and off Bonnybriar Road extending towards Bonnybank Terrace, Ridgeway Road off Alfred Street, and part of Thadeus Street between Skilling Street and Cash Street.

Marijuana

Councilors continued to discuss zoning and licensing of marijuana at the workshop.

The discussion included whether it should be allowed as a home occupation and, if allowed, if it should require the same fire and building codes as a commercial operation, and distances between licensed facilities.

Councilor Claude Morgan, who chaired the meeting in the absence of Mayor Patti Smith, said councilors must compromise and get the zoning and licensing to a first reading.

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or msochan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

The primary study area of South Portland’s West End Neighborhood Master Plan.

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