June 18, 2018
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How much parking is enough? Proposed ‘healthy living’ apartment building in Portland ignites debate

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Some neighbors of a proposed “healthy living” apartment building on Cumberland Avenue have told city planners the project will worsen parking and traffic problems in an already dense area of the city.

Others, however, have come to the developers’ defense, saying the project is important because it provides affordable housing and discourages car ownership in a city that prides itself on being environmentally friendly and accommodating for bicycles and pedestrians.

“I came to Portland so I wouldn’t have to live a car-centered life,” said area resident Jonathan Owens during a Tuesday night discussion by the Planning Board, which by the end of the night gave the project unanimous approval. “Car storage is not a good urban land use.”

The nonprofit Avesta Housing hopes to build a 57-unit apartment building on a once controversial 409 Cumberland Ave. lot, which has remained undeveloped since an ambitious 12-story tower proposal for the site fizzled nearly six years ago.

But the project only includes 18 parking spaces — 12 in a parking garage enclosure and six in a paved space outside. Also, with the vehicle entrance to the property proposed to be on the comparatively narrow and steeply inclined Mechanic Street, some area residents have expressed concerns that coming and going cars from the site would create a dangerous traffic situation during winter storms.

“I know the building has a ‘healthy living’ theme and ideally most residents in the building … will be car-free, but we think that is unrealistic,” wrote Mechanic Street resident Kate Pendleton in a letter to the city Planning Board. “It means that a lot of our on-street parking will be used up on Mechanic Street and it’s often hard enough finding parking as is. Winter [is difficult], because the lefthand side of the street is unavailable, and visitors to Bintliff’s [American Cafe] completely fill up Mechanic Street all year round.”

Although city ordinances require one parking space for every housing unit on the peninsula — the area of Portland south of Interstate 295 — the codes allow for fewer spaces for buildings of greater than 50,000 square feet if a traffic study determines less are necessary. In the case of the Avesta project, Portland Urban Designer Caitlin Cameron told the Planning Board Tuesday night, city traffic experts agreed that .7 parking spaces per unit would be sufficient.

After some debate, the board voted 4-2 to accept that .7 space-per-unit recommendation.

However, that math works out to a requirement of 40 parking spaces. Even counting one of the 18 proposed spaces as a car-share space — for a third-party communal vehicle provider, which makes the space the equivalent of eight spaces, according to city ordinances — the Avesta project is 15 spaces short.

To make up the difference, the developers are proposing to pay the city a fee of between $5,000 and $6,000 per space in lieu of parking as allowed in the ordinance.

“There needs to be some consideration for the businesses and the area residents with regard to parking,” Hanover Street resident and Bayside Neighborhood Association President Steve Hirshon told the board Tuesday.

But Christian Milneil, fellow Hanover Street resident and Portland Housing Authority board member, argued before the board that cumbersome parking requirements force developers to spend money on garage spaces that they could use to build more much-needed housing.

“Portland really needs affordable housing much more than it needs parking. Parking is a burden to being able to provide more affordable housing,” he said.

“This property is a perfect site for development. I’m really happy to see Avesta propose a mixed-income development for this site,” agreed Cumberland Avenue property owner Markos Miller. “In order to have the kind of density and the kind of growth the city envisions for this neighborhood, we’re going to have to get creative with what we do with cars. Do we want to use our limited space in this city for cars? Or do we want to use it for people?”

Miller lauded the development for encouraging healthier and more environmentally friendly alternative modes of transportation by featuring storage space for 28 bicycles and three spaces for motor scooters.

“We’re trying to create a balance here between providing parking and providing good, quality housing for people that they’ll be happy to call home,” said Seth Parker, who represented Avesta before the board Tuesday. “You start spending significant money on providing more parking, whether that’s for off-site parking or some other arrangement, and there’s an effect that has on the project.”

Developers say the $10 million project is intended to be “housing with a purpose” and feature common spaces for healthy food preparation workshops, exercise classes and — if some additional financing can be pinned down — even a rooftop garden and greenhouse for residents.

The building on the property will be approximately L-shaped and be situated up against the intersection of Cumberland and Forest avenues. The structure will contain 46 affordable housing units and 11 market-rate units.

In response to previously expressed neighbor concerns about an outdoor courtyard included in the project along Mechanic Street, Bob Metcalf of landscape architect Mitchell & Associates told city planners Tuesday night the developers are now proposing a fence around that courtyard.

In addition to Mitchell & Associates, Avesta is working with the Portland-based CWS Architects on the project.

The monthly rents in the market-rate units will range from $825 to $1,400, according to a project description distributed by Avesta, and the affordable units will cost renters between $669 and $1,030 per month.

The largely still undeveloped property at 409 Cumberland Ave. has had its share of headlines. A previous developer hoped to construct a high-profile $31 million, 12-story, 94-unit condominium project there by 2007, but faced a lawsuit by the owners of the neighboring 15-story Back Bay Towers, who complained the new building would block their tenants’ views and decrease property values.

That developer, Washington, D.C.-based Jeffrey Cohen, survived the lawsuit but was stalled long enough for the recession to take hold and the market to crumble, sinking the ambitious project despite city officials’ high hopes for the lot at the time.

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