Up to 45 residences possible on former South Portland DPW land

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The committee tasked with considering redevelopment of the former O’Neil Street public works headquarters presented recommendations for the 6-acre property to the City Council Monday. 

With a zoning change, there is the potential for 20-45 housing units to be built, Assistant City Manager Joshua Reny said, likely a blend of single-family homes and townhouses.

He said the intention would be to have the development fit into the fabric of the surrounding neighborhood, and avoid “McMansion”-style homes and gating. 

Committee member Laura Moorehouse said discussions and perspectives were developed over several months since the ad hoc committee began working on the issue in March.

“Good information flowed in this time period,” she said, including during two public hearings, the latest in mid-December. ” It’s an interesting and unique site, and we need to be reminded what’s possible there.”

After direction from the council on what their vision of the land is, Reny said, the initial draft of the request for proposal language will be re-worked, and proposals could be acquired by an early March deadline. The permitting and approval process will likely last throughout 2018. 

Reny said it will likely require conditional zoning to allow more housing than permitted by exising zoning in the district.

With public works now housed on Highland Avenue, the property in the Meetinghouse Hill neighborhood includes several vacant buildings. With the exception of one building on Pitt Street, all are in disrepair, according to engineer and redevelopment committee member Owens McCollough.

A pair of underground fuel tanks still need to be removed by the city, but the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has already issued the certification for the project and site management plan. It stipulates a management plan must be in place to properly handle contaminated soil, and no wells can be drilled. The area is serviced by public water.

Tex Haeuser, the city planning and development director, said last month the ideal proposal is a housing development that is affordable for middle-income earners and a multi-generational demographic.

Affordability remained a dominant topic of discussion Monday, with councilors and committee members focused on ensuring those with median incomes could afford homes in the neighborhood under current market forces. 

Reny said the city will not set a minimum price for the property, which is assessed at $1.5 million, with a land value of $788,300. 

Councilors expressed a desire to recoup money put into the land, but said turning a profit on the sale of the land is not a high priority if other criteria are met that enhances the neighborhood and city.

Mayor Linda Cohen said she was previously attached to the idea that the sale of the land would help pay for the public works move to Highland Avenue, but said she is no longer married to that strategy, adding additional tax revenue is another way for the city to be made whole on the project.

Reny said about $500,000 has been put into the city-owned property.

Open and green space is also an important consideration, and the committee would like to see a balance between open space and construction, with playgrounds, a community garden and park.

Members of the Community Garden Collection addressed the council, saying they have about $15,000 in reserves to create a new garden in the city and are interested in creating plots at O’Neil Street. A community garden on Sawyer Street took root in 2011. 

Haeuser said the design of the development and building materials should be ecologically focused, with energy efficiency a consideration.

Feedback from several developers included recommendations such as connecting O’Neil Street and Pitt Street for increased mobility, maximizing green space and the buildable area, as well as cautioning the city not to be too prescriptive in what it wants at the site, Haeuser and Moorehouse said in December. 

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

South Portland Assistant City Manager Joshua Reny addresses the City Council at Monday night’s workshop on the vision for redeveloping the former public works headquarters on O’Neil Street.