South Portland neighbors skeptical about Main Street housing proposal

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Thorton Heights residents met for a third time with the South Portland Housing Authority Tuesday and continued to express concerns about a $9 million project that would replace the vacant St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St.

SPHA has signed a contract to purchase the two-acre, $1.2 million property from Cafua Management, the Methuen, Massachusetts-based company that bought the lot in December 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, gave a presentation Tuesday of two concept plans the authority will present to the City Council at a Feb. 13 workshop.

The top three concerns of residents voiced at the meeting were density, parking and traffic.

After the plans were shared, Thirlmere Road resident Scott McKeen described the plan for a 40- to 42-unit building as “over the top.” McKeen said single-family homes would be a better fit with the existing neighborhood, and he also expressed disappointment the 1960s-era church will be razed.

“The church is a landmark,” he said, adding the proposed plans alter the character of the neighborhood.

A vacant parish house and former school also sit on the property eyed for redevelopment.

Resident Devin Deane said he remains open-minded to ideas, and recognizes the need for housing in the area, especially for students and families. But Deane said he shares his neighbors’ concern about density, traffic and parking.

The authority two plans will be presented to the City Council for feedback, before a project goes to the Planning Board. For the plans to be realized as they are proposed, the authority must ask the council to rezone the rear acre of the lot, which is currently in a Residential A zone, to conform with the rest of the lot, which is in the Maine Street Community Commercial zone.

The current zoning allows for 22 residential lots.

Retail space is proposed for the first floor, and the authority has been in talks with a grocer, a restaurant, a coffee shop and a bakery about potential partnerships.

The first plan proposes 42 units in a three-story building and three residential lots, to be sold off at about $75,ooo each.  Thirty-three of the apartments would be designated as affordable housing units and nine would be market-rate spaces. The retail space area as proposed is about 7,ooo square feet.

Entrances and exits will be on Thirlmere and Aspen Streets, and there would be 85 parking spaces.

The second concept includes a 40-unit apartment building, with 26 as affordable housing units, and 14 market-rate apartments. The retail space would be 5,000 square feet, and 83 parking spaces are proposed to accompany the plan.

Entrances and exits for this plan are on Aspen and Main Streets.

The housing authority will hire an engineering firm to conduct a traffic study, but said a preliminary study showed there would be between 40 and 46 trips from the development at peak hours in the evening. Several neighbors said this estimate seemed low.

Resident Beth McKeen said the city has used taxes to revitalize other sections of town, such as the Knightville and Meetinghouse Hill neighborhoods, and it’s now time to reinvest in Thorton Heights.

“It’s time to fix our side of town, we need more green space, and we can get something better,” she said.

Joyce Mendoza agreed, saying the neighborhood fought the zoning change when a Dunkin’ Donuts was proposed in order to protect the residential character of the neighborhood. She suggested the authority talk with Habitat for Humanity or other organizations to provide affordable housing and also keep density low. She said the neighborhood and streets, designed in the 1920s, are too narrow and will not support such a large-scale project.

Throughout 2013 and 2014, neighbors fought to preserve the church after the parcel was purchased for about $730,000 by Cafua Management, which, according to the company’s LinkedIn profile, owns more than 300 Dunkin’ Donuts franchises in seven states.

Cafua also proposed a zone change that called for demolishing the church and replacing it with a bigger, drive-through Dunkin’ Donuts than it currently operates less than two blocks south of the church on Main Street. 

In May 2014, after neighbors mounted an opposition campaign, the council re-zoned 611 Main St. to the Main Street Community Commercial zone, prohibiting drive-through operations and demolition of the church.

If the SPHA plan moves forward, construction could begin as early as fall 2019.

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

The two-acre property at 611 Main St. that houses the former St. John the Evangelist Church is eyed for redevelopment by the South Portland Housing Authority. The property is listed for sale for $1.2 million.

Thorton Heights residents on Tuesday night look over proposed redevelopment plans for a two-acre property at 611 Main St.

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  • Mainer1

    More section 8 housing. Great!