Portland neighbors uneasy despite compromise on West End building plan

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff
Posted Jan. 10, 2012, at 6:05 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A developer facing neighborhood resistance to his proposal for a trio of waterfront office buildings on a former West Commercial Street rail yard said he’ll amend his project in an effort to preserve West End views of the Fore River.

But some neighbors told city planning officials Tuesday the proposed amendments, including pushing the development’s 62-foot-tall building to the eastern corner of the 10.65-acre lot, may not be enough for them to support the project.

J.B. Brown & Sons had asked the city of Portland to rezone the property, between Benny’s Fried Clams and the Portland Star Match Co. building, in part bumping the allowable building height there from 45 feet to 65 feet. The 174-year-old local development and property management firm already owns the neighboring Portland Star Match Co. complex.

According to plans submitted to the city, the project proposed would include three office buildings and 231 parking spaces. Vincent Veroneau, president and CEO of J.B. Brown & Sons, said Tuesday he’s willing to cap the tallest building in the development at 55 feet — 62 feet including HVAC and other utility structures — in response to complaints by neighbors that the project would have “a detrimental impact to views” and reduce property values.

He also said he’ll place the tallest of the three buildings on the easternmost end of the long, somewhat narrow property, with buildings in the center and western sections of the lot limited to 45 feet.

But while the company was credited during a Tuesday night Portland planning board workshop for welcoming comment from area residents over previous board workshops and neighborhood meetings, some neighbors urged the developer to accept building design standards in addition to the height caps.

Attorney Peter Plumb addressed the board on behalf of residents of 11 nearby Danforth Street properties and said Veroneau’s latest version of the plan is an “acceptable compromise.”

“This is a solution that’s not a particularly happy one for [my clients], but they realize compromise is in order,” Plumb said.

Salem Street resident Jo Coyne didn’t count herself among the group willing to settle for a 55-foot building and told the board she’s disappointed Plumb’s Danforth Street crowd signaled willingness to go along with it.

“I don’t want Mr. Veroneau to get too much credit for compromising, because he asked for a lot,” Coyne said. “It’s like you ask for more than you need and then compromise down from there.”

Fellow Salem Street resident Michael Stone wrote in a letter to the board that he is “very strongly opposed to a height of any structures exceeding 45 feet.”

Hilary Bassett, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks, said before the board Tuesday that while J.B. Brown & Sons has listened to neighborhood concerns, city officials should take extra care to ensure building designs on the lot befit a “gateway to the West End Historic District and the Old Port.”

Building designs are not included in project plans submitted to the city by J.B. Brown & Sons.

Anne Pringle, president of the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association, also urged applying design guidelines to the site to make sure the property fits in with surrounding areas.

But several planning board members who spoke Tuesday balked at placing addition restrictions on the developer. Board member Lee Lowry said he’s “less in favor of importing design guidelines,” and fellow planner Joe Gray said he would support a 65-foot-tall structure there “in a heartbeat.”

With several heads in the audience shaking in disapproval, Gray said he feels “tall, sexy buildings” make for a better city gateway than shorter ones, and board member Bill Hall said the 55-foot offering is a good compromise.

Chairwoman Carol Morrissette, however, said she’s leaning toward pushing for design guidelines because of the vast amount of parking in the proposed development, and said, “I don’t feel this is a wonderful place for tall buildings.”

The board is scheduled to vote on whether to recommend a rezone of the property at its Jan. 24 meeting, with the City Council to take up the issue subsequently.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/01/10/news/portland/portland-neighbors-uneasy-despite-compromise-on-west-end-building-plan/ printed on December 22, 2014