South Portland councilors weigh O'Neil Street options

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SOUTH PORTLAND — More housing could be coming to the Meetinghouse Hill neighborhood if the city sells the former public works property on O’Neil Street. 

During a workshop on Monday, June 26, the City Council discussed the future of the former public works land, which could be sold to a developer to make way for new housing. 

Hiring a full-time economic development director was also discussed Monday.

Laura Moorehead presented recommendations made by the O’Neil Street Facility Re-Use Planning Committee. Voters decided to replace the facility at O’Neil Street on Nov. 5, 2013, with a new one at 929 Highland Ave., which is expected to open in the fall.

The 10-member ad hoc committee was created by the council in March to come up with proposals for the 6-acre property, and includes residents and city officials. The goal for moving out of the facility is the end of October. 

The committee conducted a site walk at the facility and a public forum at Brown Elementary School on June 20, when about 60 people discussed what they want to see happen with the land. 

Moorehead highlighted some of the recommendations, which included having the entire parcel turned into a park; have a large green space with a few houses, but mostly park; or a design that balances houses and green space.

Councilor Linda Cohen said she does not want the city to keep the property and referenced a promise the council made when it was promoting the 2013 ballot issue.

She said the city would use proceeds from the O’Neil Street sale to offset the costs of the new facility, and to help taxpayers.  

“For me, there is no question that I don’t want to keep the property,” Cohen said. “One of the other things that came up in the reading, too, was whether or not we wanted to keep the property and be the ones to sell the lots. Absolutely not, we’re are not Realtors and we don’t belong in the real estate market.”

Councilors seemed to be in favor of a mix of housing and green space. 

“My interest would be in residential use, whether that is age-friendly housing or something like that, and certainly open space with an inclusive of trail pieces.” Councilor Maxine Beecher said.

“I have to be honest and say I’m not really for multi-family housing in there,” she added. “I don’t think that quite fits, and I am not interested in rental housing units.”

Councilor Sue Henderson said her personal preference is green space and housing. She added she wants to see socialization, play spaces and common spaces. Henderson said she is  not opposed to rental properties, and likes the idea of affordable housing.

Mayor Patti Smith said there is a need for green space and housing, and appreciated the comments around progressive development.

“It’s nice to hear we’re looking a little bit outside the box, but we recognize there is a neighborhood there and it needs to fit within that neighborhood and fit within the character of South Portland now and South Portland in the future.”

Economic development

Funding for an economic development director has already been set aside in the city budget, and councilors seemed in favor of filling the full-time position. Currently, Joshua J. Reny holds the dual role of assistant city manager and part-time economic director.

Smith called it an “injustice in the community” by only having a half-time position.

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

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