South Portland sees former public works land as ‘blank canvas’

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The city has a rare opportunity to guide the redevelopment of a 6-acre lot in the heart of a well-established residential neighborhood, residents were told at a public forum Tuesday.

The June 20 forum was designed to gather input on the future of the former public works lot on O’Neil Street, in the Meetinghouse Hill neighborhood.

Most residents seemed concerned about the appropriate size of potential redevelopment, along with a focus on open space and walkability and the amount of new traffic that might be generated.

A pre-forum site walk and the planning session at Brown Elementary School were held “for us to understand what the community wants,” according to Mayor Patti Smith.

Those who attended were given several sets of drawings, including a variety of proposed uses for the property, which has been replaced by a new public works facility on Highland Avenue.

“We want to hear from you specifically,” Smith told those gathered. She said the drawings provided were simply meant to “provide focus for the discussion” and said no decisions have been made.

“We want to know what you like, what you don’t like, what’s missing and what’s most important,” Smith added.

In late March the City Council created the O’Neil Street Facility Re-Use Planning Committee to make recommendations for the property. In particular, it is charged with “presenting between one and three options for the City Council to consider.”

The committee, which includes residents and representatives from the City Council, Planning Board and city staff, was required to get public input in order to ensure the council can make “an informed decision.”

Tex Haeuser, the city’s planning and development director, said there are several goals that must be balanced when considering the best reuse of the property. They include at least breaking even on the sale of the property; having no ongoing maintenance requirements from any city department, and any redevelopment restrictions must make the project financially viable for both the developer and any potential unit buyer.

“The drawings provided simply show the range of possibilities,” Haeuser said. The property is zoned Residential A, which mostly consists of single-family homes, along with other permitted uses, such as schools, churches and commercial greenhouses.

However, Haeuser said, “We are not restricted to the current zoning and we can do something more creative,” if that is what people want. “This site is really unique,” he added. “We really have a lot of options.”

Even so, he said under the current Comprehensive Plan, the site is in a limited growth area and anything proposed would have to “be in character with the existing neighborhood.”

That seemed to be the hope of most residents, who clearly wanted any redevelopment to be restricted in terms of the density or intensity of the proposed use.

At the site walk, Kylie Mason from Sebago Technics, the engineering firm hired to assist the city with its development plans, said the majority of the buildings on the site were condemned and all would likely be torn down.

In addition, she noted the property has steep slopes, which could have an impact on redevelopment plans. Mason also said any environmental impact from years of use as a public works facility should be “easily addressed.”

“We’re really talking about a blank canvas,” she said.

Mason and Haeuser also reassured residents that no decisions have yet been made and that any development proposal would be required to go through at least site plan review by the Planning Board.

Haeuser said it’s still to be decided if the city will retain any portion of the property, and said the goal of the session at Brown School was to “see if we can get a consensus and settle on a direction for reuse.”

“After tonight,” he said, “we should get a better sense of what people are thinking and that will help us look for a developer to implement the vision.”

The O’Neil Street Committee was scheduled to meet Thursday to “frame where we are in the process, debrief the public forum and discuss what’s next,” according to the agenda.

Next steps include meetings in July and August, and a yet-to-be-determined City Council workshop.

Prior to the start of the forum at Brown School, City Manager Scott Morelli said the session was “a good opportunity for neighbors to come together and have a conversation about what you would like to see.”

“This is a rare opportunity to create a better neighborhood and a better city,” he said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

Prior to a planning session Tuesday, South Portland residents had a chance to walk the former public works facility on  O’Neil Street.

Tex Haeuser, South Portland’s planning and development director, Tuesday said the city is trying to get “a better sense of what people are thinking” in terms of the vision for the former public works property on O’Neil Street.

A large group of residents turned out Tuesday at Brown Elementary School to talk about the future of South Portland’s former O’Neil Street public works site.

The former O’Neil Street public works site in South Portland is in the already well-established Meetinghouse Hill residential neighborhood.