Portland project compromise considered too short, too tall and just right

Posted Feb. 22, 2012, at 8:55 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 23, 2012, at 9:58 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A developer’s controversial plan to build a trio of office buildings on a former West Commercial Street rail yard is a step closer to reality as the City Council on Wednesday night approved a rezone of the site that will allow buildings of 45 and 55 feet in height there.

Several residents spoke out against the rezone Wednesday night but they were divided about whether a compromise over allowable heights at the spot was too low or too high.

Property management firm J.B. Brown & Sons has long hoped to develop the 10.65-acre lot between the Portland Star Match Co. building, which it also owns, and Benny’s Fried Clams. While no definitive plans for the location have been submitted, the company’s preliminary drawings show three office buildings and 231 parking spaces.

“We hope this is the beginning of a positive change for West Commercial Street,” Vincent Veroneau, president of the 174-year-old J.B. Brown & Sons, told the councilors Wednesday night.

The rezone approved Wednesday by the council technically changes 5.8 acres of the property from waterfront port development zone to mixed use commercial, while another half acre of the site is switched to west end residential zoning to provide an additional buffer for nearby property owners.

Greg Mitchell, the city’s acting director of planning and urban development, wrote to the council in a memo that leaving the inland side of West Commercial Street zoned for waterfront port development, which is geared toward promoting marine-related facilities, would make it difficult for anybody to ever build on the site.

He wrote that the zoning likely was established when the parcel was part of a larger piece that stretched across the street to the waterfront side of West Commercial Street. J.B. Brown & Sons acquired the lot last year from Portland Terminal Co., which still owns much of the land across the street.

While the mixed use commercial zone allows structures to reach 65 feet in height, the amended rezone agreed to by J.B. Brown caps heights at 45 feet on the western side of the property and 55 feet between Fletcher Street and Emery Street. The compromise was intended to appease neighbors uphill who complained that the tall buildings might block their views of the Fore River or be too large to serve as a gateway into the downtown from the West End.

The rezoning agreement received the endorsement of both the planning board and the Western Promenade Neighborhood Association after a site walk and several subsequent workshops and meetings over the fall and early winter.

“The process has resulted in a reasonable compromise for both sides,” Veroneau told the council.

Peter Plumb, an attorney representing a group of nearby Danforth Street homeowners, agreed, telling councilors Wednesday “everyone would be happier with a much lower height, but my clients realize compromise is in order here.”

Not everyone agreed that allowing a 55-foot building there represented a good compromise, although those who spoke out Wednesday disagreed sharply on whether the agreed-upon heights were too short or too tall. Some felt the city should hold out for a 45-foot cap across the whole lot, while others said Portland should support buildings that rise much higher than 55 feet.

“I have no problem with tall buildings, however not any place on this parcel of land,” said Salem Street resident Mike Stone. “I just don’t feel it’s the right place for that type of development.”

Added fellow Salem Street resident Jo Coyne: “My feeling was that [Danforth Street residents] compromised on 55 feet and didn’t come forward to you with 45 feet because they were terrified the planning board would put through 65 feet. I really feel 45 feet would be sufficient on West Commercial Street.”

High Street resident Steven Scharf said Portlanders “need to stop pussyfooting around with 45-foot height limits.”

“We need to be building bigger and higher, especially in this portion of Portland,” Scharf, whose sentiments Wednesday subsequently were echoed by former mayoral candidate Charles Bragdon, told the council. “I’m concerned we’re going to end up with low, suburban-style buildings surrounded by parking. My suggestion is to go big or go home.”

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