Controversial project on Portland’s Munjoy Hill given the go-ahead by city planners

This rendering, distributed by NewHeight Group, depicts a four-story mixed-use building the developers hope to construct at 118 Congress St. on Portland's Munjoy Hill. The developers are working with Archetype and TLA architecture firms.
Courtesy of NewHeight Group
This rendering, distributed by NewHeight Group, depicts a four-story mixed-use building the developers hope to construct at 118 Congress St. on Portland's Munjoy Hill. The developers are working with Archetype and TLA architecture firms.
Posted Jan. 28, 2014, at 10:19 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 28, 2014, at 10:46 p.m.
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

PORTLAND, Maine — Developers hoping to build a four-story, mixed-use project on Portland’s Munjoy Hill, which has been touted as a positive addition to the neighborhood by some and blasted as too tall by others, were given the green light to move forward by the city’s Planning Board Tuesday night.

The 118 Congress St. project, which would feature retail space and nine indoor parking spaces at the street level and 12 condominium units on the three floors above, would replace a one-story once occupied by a grocery store and now home to TLA Architects.

Last month, the City Council voted 6-3 to approve an ordinance change to accommodate the project by increasing 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.

The project — which has been promoted by developers Chip Newell and Susan Morris as a “new approach to urban living” by prioritizing head space, outdoor decks and “state-of-the-art” energy efficiency techniques, among other things — has proven to be divisive on Munjoy Hill.

While supporters of the plan laud the additional retail space and innovative approach, others in the area have argued the four-story structure will stick out in a neighborhood mostly populated by two- and three-story buildings.

“I have to admit, I’m really very taken aback by it,” said North Street resident Carol McCracken, author of the local Munjoy Hill News blog, to the board. “The mass and the scaling of this — wow — it’s very upsetting, and I think it’s going to be a big sore thumb on Munjoy Hill.”

But Howard Street resident Jasa Porciello told the planners she was “pleased” by the building designs rolled out by the developers Tuesday. James Pike, who owns property across the street from the nearby landmark Portland Observatory, said he came to the meeting expecting to be opposed to the project, but admitted to the board he was “very impressed” by the building plans, which use multiple colors and architectural variations to break the space up visually.

“I think this is a really fine example of urban in-fill mixed-use development,” agreed Waterville Street resident Peter Bass.

“Yes the massing is large … but I really think the spine of Congress Street can support this massing,” said Planning Board member Jack Soley.

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 to eventually build four 165-foot-tall towers and two parking garages.

But while the issue of the height was resolved by the council’s ordinance change last month, the Planning Board found another sticking point Tuesday night in the form of upper floor decks that are proposed to hang 16 inches over the public sidewalks on Congress Street, and more than two feet over along St. Lawrence Street.

Board members expressed concerns about the project’s infringement on public space, as well as the prospect of snow and ice building up and falling off onto pedestrians.

Ultimately, the board approved the project under the condition that the developers at least remove the more pronounced overhangs along St. Lawrence Street. The board voted unanimously to grant the project subdivision and conditional site plan approvals.

The board agreed to forward a nonbinding communication to the City Council urging the higher panel to seek some kind of payment for the right to infringe on public space.

The 118 Congress St. project being proposed by Newell and Morris 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.

Also on Tuesday night, the Planning Board unanimously approved a $1.5 million, three-story, five-unit apartment complex with an attached five-car garage elsewhere on Munjoy Hill. That project is proposed to be built on columns on a sloped site at 152-156 Sheridan St.

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