Condo project has Bangor facing growing pains

Posted April 21, 2011, at 8:32 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Tucked behind a small neighborhood of middle-class, single-family homes off outer Essex Street in Bangor, a parcel of land has been vacant for years just waiting for the right type of development.

The land’s owner, TJS Realty LLC, finally settled on a use — a 54-unit condominium project consisting of four four-unit buildings, six six-unit buildings and one duplex — and recently presented plans to the city’s planning board.

Residents of Greenfield Avenue and Labarca Lane, the established neighborhood that soon could share space with the proposed condo development, were less than thrilled when they heard the news.

Many attended the planning board meetings to express concerns. They don’t want to see a sudden influx of traffic. They don’t want to see their property values decrease. They don’t want to see their neighborhood change.

After a sometimes spirited discussion that spanned three meetings and featured lawyers representing each side, the planning board first rejected the plan in a narrow vote in February and then reversed the decision earlier this month.

“[Developer] Joe Simpson and I are pleased that the Bangor Planning Board has approved the project, and we respect the process that the board used to make sure that all perspectives were considered in its review,” said Andrew Hamilton, a local attorney representing TJS Realty.

The debate over the project known as Grandview Estates may be over (pending an possible appeal), but its aftermath poses a broader question that the city might soon be forced to answer: How should it handle future development requests in an effort to attract new residents but keep the old ones too?

“I think there is a political issue lurking,” said Charlie Gilbert, an attorney who represented Darryl and Mary Lyon, a Greenfield Avenue couple who are opposed to the condo development. “The city does not want to be seen as anything but business-friendly, but you have to consider, ‘Is this development out of character with the existing neighborhood?’

“Are there going to be more of these types of developments?” he asked. “I don’t know.”

According to city officials, the answer is yes. Planner David Gould said the city likely is going to have to address concerns going forward.

Planning Board Chairman Miles Theeman, who voted against the Grandview Estates plan, said he’s not convinced that development will prompt a broader discussion.

Condo projects and clustered subdivisions have been on the rise in Bangor over the last several years, although the down economy has slowed development.

Where they are sited is always tricky.

Orchard Trails, a condo project on outer Broadway, has been successful for many years.

Another large cluster of attached residential dwellings off Mount Hope Avenue has done well, and smaller condo developments have popped up in other neighborhoods as well.

The appeal of that type of housing depends on the perspective, but condos usually are less expensive than single-family homes and require less maintenance. In place of a front or backyard, condo developments typically have shared open space that can be used by all owners within the development.

The two biggest potential buyers of condos are young professionals without children and the 55-and-older crowd looking to downsize because their children are grown.

In many cases, condominium projects are built in what are known as high-density zones, areas of the city compatible with mutli-unit dwellings such as apartment buildings. But Bangor’s high-density zones are reaching capacity, according to Gould, which means that those projects could look to go elsewhere, even outside of Bangor.

Despite the high number of units proposed, Grandview Estates actually fits into a low-density zone because the development is focused in a small section of the property and the rest is preserved as open space.

Gilbert said the current residents on Greenfield Avenue and Labarca Lane are not encouraged by the fact that Grandview Estates fits the definition of low-density.

“It will triple the population of the neighborhood,” he said.

Gilbert said his clients, like many in the area, have lived for years in a quiet cul-de-sac neighborhood accessible only to those who live in the neighborhood. Bringing in dozens more residents who would need to use their road to access Grandview Estates would radically change the fabric of that neighborhood, they feel. Some also have expressed concerns about the quality of construction and whether that will mesh with existing homes.

“Even though the zone allows for both [condominiums] and single-family dwellings, I felt given the way the project would fit in the zone, they appeared to be incompatible,” Theeman said.

As more of these developments pop up in the coming months and years, compatibility could be a key to approving or rejecting specific projects.

Councilor Cary Weston admitted that the city has done some “spot zoning” recently to accommodate some projects, but he said that sooner or later, a larger conversation likely will need to occur.

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