South Portland hears concerns, proceeds with O'Neil Street project

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Following concerns by some abutters about design and scale, developers met with city staff and neighborhood representatives June 28 to discuss plans for the former public works property on O’Neil Street. 

City councilors voted 6-1 last month to accept a bid for $400,000 from Windward Development LLC of South Portland to develop the property.

The proposal calls for several multi-unit townhouses and single-family homes, Assistant City Manager Joshua Reny said at a June 5 council meeting. With a zoning change, there is the potential for 20-45 residences.

The meeting last week was intended to gather feedback before negotiations begin with Windward about such things as the architectural design of the project and which entity will maintain public areas. A second public hearing will be held at a later date to show an array of potential designs. 

When plans for the development were made public in early June, some neighbors and members of the committee were disappointed with the proposal, prompting the council to require more meetings and negotiations between the selection committee, neighbors and the developers before the property is conveyed. 

Margaret K. Esten, whose property abuts the project, said the proposed design is not congruent with the surrounding homes and landscape. The Comprehensive Plan calls for development to be comparable in scale and character with surrounding areas, which she said is not achieved in the proposed design. 

Esten recommended smaller homes and single-story condominiums be built in areas where there is open space to mitigate the scale of the buildings.

Windward said they would speak with the architect to discuss design changes and options that would be amenable to the public. 

Discussion of whether rental properties would be included in the project was also a topic of disagreement. Redevelopment Committee member Linden Thigpen said rental properties could be a good addition to the plan, especially for people downsizing from home ownership to smaller living spaces. 

Concerns about short-term rentals such as Airbnb were voiced, but Reny said there could be a provision added to the contract that prohibits short-term rentals. 

Planning Director Tex Haeuser said development compatibility can be achieved in several ways, including buffering and public amenities. Strict building requirements for the architectural style are too narrow, Haeuser said, and could jeopardize the potential for a unique site. 

Maintenance of the public spaces in the development would most likely be the responsibility of the city since areas like playscapes and the community garden will be open to the city, according to Haeuser. 

A redevelopment committee spent more than a year gathering input from the neighborhood about what the city would like to see as part of a redevelopment project, including a community garden, green space and affordable housing on the 6-acre site. 

Developers said they are planning a cluster-style development to maximize open space. The road leading into the development will be a boulevard to create a certain aesthetic, calm traffic and manage stormwater runoff. Three of the buildings would be three to three and a half stories high, but remain consistent with zoning restrictions. The permit and approval process will likely last throughout 2018.

The committee presented recommendations for the property to the City Council in January, and a selection team comprising four committee members, Councilor Kate Lewis, and city staff chose one of the two requests for proposals developers submitted.

Reny said the committee had hoped to have four or five bids to review, but a strong building market, the small size of the lot, and other considerations limited proposals. 

At the meeting June 28, it was asked whether the committee considered putting the project out to bid again, but Reny said it would only mean lost time for the project, given it is likely there would not be a different result.

“It is what it is,” he said, adding the project proposal was a quality bid and earned a score of 86 out of 100. 

Reny said he hopes a consensus can be reached, saying he understands the concerns and acknowledges their legitimacy. He asked for some trust in the process and wants residents to understand it’s only the beginning of the time line. 

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106., or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JulietteLaaka. 

A rendering of the O’Neil Street project proposed for the former site of the South Portland Department of Public Works.

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