PORTLAND, Maine — Two weeks before the Planning Board is scheduled to continue hearing public testimony – and, perhaps, to vote – on a proposed high-rise housing and retail complex in Bayside, opinion remains sharply divided about the Midtown project.
The board on Jan. 14 will reconvene a hearing that began Dec. 10 with comments from 50 people, the majority of whom opposed the $150 million development. As that hearing approached its fifth hour, the board decided to suspend further discussion and table voting until its January meeting.
Plans call for Miami-based developer The Federated Cos. to construct four 15-story towers and two parking garages on 3.25 acres of city-owned land along Somerset Street. To be built in phases over as long as a decade, the complex ultimately would include 700 market-rate apartments, parking for about 1,100 vehicles, and more than 95,000 square feet of retail space in an area that previously contained scrap yards.
But while the board is waiting to take a position on the plans, the public isn’t.
Opponents, including Keep Portland Livable, a group formed by residents in October, claim Midtown is too large, out of scale with the rest of the city, and inconsistent with the 2000 master plan for Bayside. They also claim the project will block views of Portland’s skyline, create harsh winds and long shadows, and set a bad precedent for future development by granting zoning exceptions and a $9 million subsidy to Federated.
But supporters, such as Bayside Neighborhood Association President Steve Hirshon, counter that the development will create a hub of housing and commercial space that is necessary for the neighborhood to thrive – and is called for by the 2000 plan. They point to the creation of jobs and apartments as benefits to the entire city.
Midtown’s design does not seriously affect the skyline or open space, the supporters claim. They also point out that the zoning changes were minor ones made in an area that was conditionally zoned to accommodate Midtown’s 165-foot towers, and that the developer’s subsidy is the result of a federal grant for building the initial parking garage.
The complex issues have ignited debate online and on the street.
Keep Portland Livable maintains a website that is updated weekly with posts opposing Midtown, and is coordinating an online petition. The group’s co-founder, Tim Paradis, presented the petition, with more than 300 signatures, to the Planning Board at the Dec. 10 meeting.
The next day, a group of project supporters, Portlanders For Sustainability, launched a Facebook page. The group advocates “urban sustainability, smart growth and anti-sprawl development,” according to its page, which so far has collected about 150 “likes.”
On Saturday, a passer-by on Marginal Way said she hadn’t heard of Portlanders For Sustainability, but seemed to favor its position on Midtown.
“We need buildings that allow more people to live downtown, without a car. Bayside is a good place to do it, and on balance, (Midtown) seems like a reasonable design,” East End resident Margaret Webster said.
She said the height of Midtown’s towers, which would stand taller than the nearby Intermed building, didn’t concern her.
“We need to be building upwards. Portland has very, very few tall buildings, even for a city of its size, but we’re going to need them if we want people in the city.”
Another pedestrian had a different view.
“Portland is a unique place, with unique architecture. This project is going to ruin some of that by putting generic buildings for the wealthy in the worst possible spot,” said Kevin Bartlett, who recently moved to Bayside from Massachusetts.
“We’re going to be stuck with this atrocity, and I think (the city) and the people developing (Midtown) are trying to rush things through and sugar-coat what it’s going to do to Portland,” he said.
Peter Monro, the other co-founder of Keep Portland Livable, agrees with that charge.
“(The developers) have worked mightily to hide the negative impact of this project,” he said Friday. He accused Federated and its development team, led by Portland-based consultant Greg Shinberg, of misleading the public with sketches that do not depict Midtown in a “neighborhood context.”
“Why don’t they show what (Midtown) looks like on the ground?” Monro asked. “They’ve made deliberate decisions to hide that.”
Shinberg feels such charges are unfounded.
“That’s just not the truth. This process has been completely transparent,” he said.
Shinberg pointed out that in addition to the Dec. 10 hearing, public discussion of the Midtown plans has included six workshops with the Planning Board and two neighborhood meetings.
Project plans were unveiled in September 2012, after the city agreed to sell the land to Federated more than 2 1/2 years ago. Since then, Shinberg feels the project has been thoroughly scrutinized by the public and the Planning Board.
Some opponents are “not fully informed” about the project, he said, because they haven’t participated in the process or attended the meetings, including Keep Portland Livable, which “showed up late,” according to Shinberg.
“This is a good process, and it should be about making the project better,” he said. “… It’s unfair to show up at the last minute and turn the cart over.”