June 24, 2018
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Controversial Portland housing project stalls at Planning Board over design concerns

Courtesy of Portland Planning Department
Courtesy of Portland Planning Department
This rendering, provided to the Portland Planning Board by developer 113 Newbury Street LLC, depicts the second phase of the Bay House project in Portland's India Street neighborhood. The 39-unit residential building would be constructed on the corner of the Newbury and Hancock streets.
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland planners sent developers proposing a four-story housing development in the India Street neighborhood back to the drawing board Tuesday night after blasting the project’s designs.

The city Planning Board voted 5-1, with Timothy Dean opposed and chairwoman Carol Morrissette absent, to table the project until its Oct. 22 meeting to give project architects time to reboot designs for a building one board member called “a monolithic block.”

An expected public surge of opposition to the project never materialized at the Tuesday night board meeting, but city planners picked up the torch and sharply criticizing the proposed look of the building in the absence of significant outcry from neighbors.

The $12 million Phase II of the high-profile Bay House project, now titled Seaport Lofts, would be a 60,000-square-foot structure constructed at the corner of Newbury and Hancock streets.

In the days leading up to Tuesday night’s meeting, residents from the India Street neighborhood launched an email campaign promising to fight the 60,000-square-foot project, saying it contradicted historically sensitive design recommendations by the nonprofit Sustain Southern Maine, which put together a development strategy for the neighborhood as part of a $1.6 million grant-funded process.

Template emails circulated by opponents before the meeting accused the proposed project as having “a blockish, soulless face reminiscent of Soviet Russia.”

But no members of the public delivered that sentiment to the Planning Board Tuesday as promised. Four brief questions were posed during the part of the meeting set aside for public comments, with three pertaining to how the project and its new tenants may further exacerbate an on-street parking crunch in the area.

Project architect David White said black-and-white printouts of pictures submitted to the city planning office don’t do justice to how attractive the building will be. He said the 230-foot-long face along Newbury Street will be broken up by seven architectural bump-outs and dozens of openings and recesses. He also said the developers could use brighter colored materials on the project.

“Some of the colors you have here are really dark, and it wasn’t our intention to have it be really, really dark,” White said. “There is a lot going on that, when you’re looking at the black and white, you might not think is going on.”

The project would feature 39 residential units — seven townhomes and 32 flats, according to documentation filed with the Planning Board. The development will include 43 parking spaces.

While the public left the style of project alone at the meeting, some Planning Board members were harder to please.

“Color is not architecture, and it still reads ‘flat’ to me. It still reads to me as almost a monolithic block,” board member Jack Soley told the developers. “The color differentiation helps that, but it’s not architecture. … A couple of awnings don’t do it for me either. I’m going to be looking for some differentiation and contrast that relates it to the community.”

That opinion was echoed by fellow board members Bill Hall and Elizabeth Boepple.

“I agree that it’s an important project that fulfills a need, but that’s all the more reason to make sure it’s a project we can approve wholeheartedly,” Boepple said.

Project architect White said too dramatic an architectural change to the designs would threaten to make the project financially unfeasible.

“The first pass at this project was $1 million over budget,” he said. “Anything we add to that will exacerbate that.”

The larger Phase I of the Bay House project on nearby Middle Street, where units are reported to be ready for occupancy in December, features 94 luxury condominiums.

Portland’s India Street neighborhood has been a hotbed of development activity in recent years, with a mixed-use Hampton Inn-based development where the former Jordan’s Meats factory once stood and an ambitious six-story condominium complex abutting Franklin Street once contemplated by billionaire S. Donald Sussman before falling into limbo.

A public visioning exercise, in which neighborhood residents have been invited to weigh in on a comprehensive build-out strategy for the once neglected area, included a planning meeting as recently as last week.

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