Tall order: High-rise suggested for Portland newspaper property would face zoning hurdles

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PORTLAND — Two days after announcing the purchase of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and other Maine newspapers, the new owner Thursday said there is a buyer for the company’s downtown real estate.

John Cacoulidis, a developer from New York who owns properties in Maine, signed a purchase agreement with MTM Portland Properties, an affiliate of MaineToday Media, according to a press release from the newspaper company.

The downtown properties include the Portland Press Herald headquarters at 390 Congress St. and the parking lot and former printing press building across the street at 385 Congress.

Tom Moulton of The Dunham Group, who represents Cacoulidis, said Thursday that the office building would be leased back to MaineToday Media for a short term of less than a year. He said the building needs a complete renovation.

The printing press building  would be removed, and Cacoulidis plans a “substantial” mixed-use development there, Moulton said, adding that he could not confirm other reports that Cacoulidis wants to build a 30-story high-rise on the property.

If he did want a building that tall, Cacoulidis would need a zoning change from the city. Current zoning allows buildings up to 150 feet in the B-3 zone, or no more than about 15 stories. There are also restrictions along Myrtle and Pearl streets, both of which define the borders of the property.

Myrtle Street, which separates the property from City Hall, has a 50-foot height limit along the street, according to city Planning and Urban Development Director Penny Littell. A building would have to be set back 15 feet to rise to 150 feet.  Along Pearl Street there is a 90-foot height limit unless the building is at least 15 feet from the street.

Littell said planning staff members have not met with Cacoulidis or his representatives, so she is not sure what his plans are. If he decides to seek a zone change, he will have to go through the Planning Board and City Council, and then the Planning Board again. If he decides to build within zoning regulations, the process could take as little as three months, she said.

The property would also be subject to some Historic Preservation review, since it is within 100 feet of a historic zone.

Moulton said he expects Cacoulidis to submit plans to the city within six months.

Cacoulidis also owns Hope Island, a private island near Chebeague Island. He and his wife tried unsuccessfully in the early 2000s to secede from Cumberland. He also owns 2 Monument Square in Portland and a 22-acre parcel of land along the South Portland waterfront where, in 2005, he announced plans for a hotel, marina and residences. That proposal, which originally included an aerial tram across Portland Harbor, never materialized.

Richard Connor, chief executive officer of MaineToday Media and editor and publisher of the company’s newspapers, said in a press release that the real estate sale will allow the company to reduce its debt and establish strong financial footing. Connor joined with HM Capital Partners of Dallas and the Portland Newspaper Guild union to buy the former Blethen Maine papers from the owners of the Seattle Times, which put the Maine properties up for sale in March 2008.

The amount paid by Connor and his partners has not been disclosed, but is believed to be far less than the $213 million the Seattle Times has reported was borrowed to pay for the newspapers in 1998. 

The price Cacoulidis agreed to pay for the Portland real estate was not disclosed, either. But the city assessor lists the value of the 2.3-acre property at 385 Congress St. at $3.7 million. The property at 390 Congress St., which is listed as two separate parcels by the city, is valued at $4.5 million.

Part of the Chestnut Street parking garage is also included in the deal, which is expected to be completed within 30 days.

In addition to the Portland newspapers, Connor purchased the Kennebec Journal, the Waterville Sentinel and several weeklies on June 15. The sale also includes the mainetoday.com Web site and the newspaper properties in Portland and South Portland.

Connor, who continues as editor and publisher of the daily Times Leader newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., said some Portland employees will be moved to the company’s South Portland printing plant, while others will work from leased office space in Portland. The Portland newspapers have eliminated dozens of jobs through layoffs and retirement incentives in the last year, and 31 non-union managers were dismissed this month in advance of Connor’s acquisition.

The new publisher has said another 100 layoffs are possible.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net