Portland raises allowable building height to accommodate controversial Munjoy Hill project

Developers want to build a four-story building, with retail space on the first floor and condos above, at 118 Congress Street in Portland's Munjoy Hill neighborhood.
Developers want to build a four-story building, with retail space on the first floor and condos above, at 118 Congress Street in Portland's Munjoy Hill neighborhood. Buy Photo
Posted Dec. 16, 2013, at 10:28 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 16, 2013, at 10:50 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — A proposal for a four-story, mixed-use project on Portland’s Munjoy Hill — for which the city agreed to raise the height cap in the area — has drawn some opposition from neighbors.

With a 6-3 vote, the City Council on Monday night approved an ordinance change that increases allowable building heights in the B-1 neighborhood business zone on the hill from 45 feet to 50 feet — as long as 75 percent of the ground floor is used for commercial purposes and upper floors remain residential.

While some in the neighborhood say they welcome the additional retail frontage and indoor parking, both included in developers’ plans for a new project at 118 Congress St., others argue the taller structure will look out of place among what are mostly two- and three-story buildings in the area.

Munjoy Hill resident Diane Davison acknowledged that the site is in need of development, but argued that five extra feet of height at that spot would cause the building to rival — and from some directions, block the view of — the nearby landmark Portland Observatory.

Atlantic Street resident Jamie Parker echoed that sentiment, saying the site currently is “a bit of a broken tooth,” but the proposed structure is “quite large.”

The debate is one playing out in several of Portland’s neighborhoods, perhaps most significantly around the so-called Midtown project in the city’s Bayside neighborhood, where another development team is seeking permits to eventually build four 165-foot-tall towers and two parking garages.

The 118 Congress St. project being proposed by Ed Theriault and Chip Newell is the latest in a series of development plans for Munjoy Hill, which like the nearby India Street neighborhood and Bayside has become a hotbed of activity.

This past summer, Avesta Housing opened a 16-unit townhouse campus on the hill’s former Adams School property, and Redfern Properties is planning to build 29 luxury condominiums as part of a project on Walnut Street. An ambitious renovation drive is underway for the historic St. Lawrence Arts Center, a former church.

Theriault and Newell’s new structure would feature a retail establishment and 19 indoor parking spaces at the street level and three floors of condominium units above.

Attorney Tom Federle, representing the developers Monday night, told councilors his clients want to allow 13 feet in height for the ground floor of the project. Newell said without the height allowance, he would seek to still redevelop the lot, but just with parking on the bottom floor.

The lot — at the corner of Congress and St. Lawrence streets — currently has a one-story building where a grocer was once located and TLA Architects is now.

“I’m not convinced the additional five feet will make such an impact on this neighborhood that it’s not justified by allowing the retail space,” said City Councilor Jill Duson Monday.

Some attendees of a late October neighborhood meeting on the project told the developers they saw it as a boon for the area.

“The property to be developed by the applicant at 118 Congress St. could make a significant contribution to reweaving the fabric of the business district on the top of Munjoy Hill, but only if the frontage is active retail,” wrote local property owner Barbara Vestal in a letter to city planners last month.

Other area residents urged city officials to reject the height limitation change.

“I’m not OK with awarding the developers a variance to go up an additional five feet; the building would then be out-of-scale and overpowering to its surroundings,” St. Lawrence Street resident Linda Tyler told city planners in an email.

Councilors Kevin Donoghue joined David Marshall and John Coyne in voting against the ordinance change, saying the small area in which the additional height would be allowed is so specific it’s akin to a contract zone, which he generally opposes.

“We’re just doing this to satisfy one property. It’s really not the comprehensive look I’d want to have to support a zoning change,” Marshall agreed. “It’s not a contract zone, but it’s about as close to a contract zone or spot zone as we can get.”

Mayor Michael Brennan clarified Monday night that the council just approved the height limitation change, not the overall project, and said the development must still receive permits from the Planning Board, where concerns from the public can be considered.

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