Zoning for sound stage at South Portland armory moves ahead amid concerns

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City officials are taking concrete steps to breath life into a historic building that has been collecting cob webs and dust at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge since it was acquired in 2006.

City Manager Jim Gailey said he has been negotiating either a lease or sale of the former National Guard Armory on Broadway with Eric Matheson, a Cape Elizabeth resident who wants to build a sound studio for films and commercials.

Gailey met with the City Council in a closed session Monday night to discuss a potential deal with Matheson, who has experience building movie sets. Since negotiations are continuing, Gailey would not discuss the details of any pending agreement for the building, bought by the city in 2006 for $650,000 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. 

Meanwhile, Matheson said local investors and tenants for the project are falling into place. 

“We have spoken to several people who are totally committed to this and others that will follow,” Matheson said. “It’s surprising me. I thought it would take me a little longer.”

The sound stage proposal moved forward this week when the Planning Board voted 4-2 Tuesday night in favor of a conditional zone for the former armory and three-acre lot, located between Central Fire Station and the Scammon Street neighborhood. The City Council will consider the zone change at a workshop Monday night, Sept. 28, at the Community Center.

Although the board issued a positive recommendation to the council, there was considerable discussion and concern about several aspects of the proposal. Concerns were raised both by board members and residents about measures to protect the neighborhood and whether the proposed use would require a large parking lot.   

Board members Caroline Hendry and Gerard Jalbert voted against the proposal, because city planners included a piece of land owned by Central Maine Power Co. that buffers the Scammon Street neighborhood. 

Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said the CMP lot was included because the armory can only be accessed from the CMP right of way. 

“Whether we like it or not, CMP has to be a partner in the redevelopment of the armory,” Haeuser said. “If we don’t include CMP in this process, we could end up not having any potential reuse.”

Hudson Road residents Stephanie and Dennis Gilbert, who directly abut the armory lot, expressed concern that including the CMP parcel in the proposal would encourage development close to their home.

Dennis Gilbert said his concerns are based on a prior project that would have put a museum in the building, a process he described as a “horror show.”

“The glass and ceramics museum had to cannibalize space from CMP to pave their parking lot, which (would have) put it outside of our dining room window,” he said. “All of the neighbors are concerned.”

Although the CMP corridor provides a 60-foot buffer for the neighborhood, Haeuser said the 20-foot buffer that would be required under the proposal is more than other requirements in the city. That buffer would have to be opaque, which would require two to three rows of trees. But those details would be developed during the site plan review.

Meanwhile, the city must walk a fine line between maximizing a city-owned asset, while addressing neighbors’ concerns.

“We’re trying our best to accommodate multiple objectives and provide as much protection as we can through the zoning and site plan process,” Haeuser said. 

Although Matheson intends to build a sound stage, the zone change would also allow related uses, including a small art gallery where photos and sculptures could be displayed. Board member Rob Schreiber cautioned against including a public gallery as a permitted used, because it could have unintended consequences and create conflict with the neighborhood. 

“I think you’re in danger of triggering a lot of parking,” Schreiber said. “When you come back for site plan review, you have to really think about these uses.” 

Board members were sympathetic to the Gilbert’s concern about parking and promised those concerns would be adequately addressed through the site plan review.

The conditional zone, which contains provisions that gives the City Council control over any changes that would compromise the exterior of the art deco building, also contains a sunset clause, which would terminate any new zone approved by the City Council if the sound stage fails to come to fruition by 2012.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net