PORTLAND, Maine — Opponents of what would ultimately be a four-tower, $150-million complex in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood have filed a lawsuit to block the first phase of the project.
The opposition group Keep Portland Livable announced Wednesday that the lawsuit was filed on behalf of a group of Bayside residents and business owners, including group co-founder Peter Monro and neighborhood residents Martin Margulis and Charlotte Fullam.
The suit, filed Wednesday in Superior Court, challenges the decision last month by the city’s Planning Board to grant the first phase of the project subdivision, site plan and master development plan approvals, complete with 13 pages of conditions and waivers.
Monro said a court appeal represents opponents’ only remaining recourse for a case in which city officials were deaf to the public’s concerns.
“We’ve taken our concerns about Midtown to each Planning Board workshop and public hearing for the past year,” said Monro in a Wednesday afternoon statement. “But with City Hall determined to build at any cost, the developer has lacked any incentive to compromise. And the Planning Board has failed in its duty to uphold the rules and standards that have made Portland a great small city.”
Opponents argued before the Planning Board that the project is too massive for a smaller-sized city like Portland, that the towers would cast shadows too large and create winds too uncomfortable in the burgeoning Bayside neighborhood.
The development also received vocal support from others during the public proceedings, including from the Portland Community Chamber and a residents group that formed to back the project, Portlanders For Sustainability.
Developers from The Federated Cos. of Florida have only received city approval for the first phase of the project — a 165-foot-tall, 235-unit apartment building with nearly 44,000 square feet on the lower floors designated for restaurants and shops, and a nearby parking garage that will be 75 feet high and include 700 spaces. Estimated costs for the first phase are between $45 million and $50 million.
By the time the proposed Midtown project is complete, after a decade’s worth of construction and $150 million, the complex would include four towers, 1.16 million square feet of building space, including 700,000 square feet of residential space, 100,000 square feet of retail and more than 1,100 garage parking spaces.
The development would occupy the stretch of Somerset Street between Elm Street and what will be an extension of Pearl Street, bisected by Chestnut Street. The largely undeveloped city-owned area was formerly industrial scrapyards.
Portland city attorney Danielle West-Chuhta told the Bangor Daily News late Wednesday afternoon that she has yet to be served with documents regarding the lawsuit, and therefore has no comment on it.
Gary Vogel, an attorney representing the developers, said he also hasn’t seen the complaint. Although the lawsuit directly targets the city, which gave the project approval, Vogel said the developers will be involved with the case as interested parties.
“I can’t really talk about the specifics of what their arguments are, but generally speaking, it’s disappointing that it’s going to delay a good project that’s been extensively vetted by the City Council and Planning Board,” Vogel said. “Unfortunately, it sends a bad message to other people who might want to invest and develop in Portland.”
Vogel said his clients “are committed to moving forward with” the project.
“They feel the Planning Board did a good and thorough job, and that the project met all their requirements,” he said. “We will make that argument in Superior Court.”
The litigants lined up in opposition are planning to argue that the project fails to comply with local and state guidelines, and that the Planning Board overstepped its bounds by accepting an application opponents said was missing, among other things, a three-dimensional model of the project.
“The developer’s presentation to the city and public misrepresented the impact the Midtown project will have on the West Bayside community,” Margulis said in a statement. “By not presenting a 3D model, the mammoth scale of this project and its effects on the neighborhood have been kept hidden.”
The Midtown complex bucks city comprehensive plan guidelines seeking “a small-town feel” and neighborhood blocks about half the size of those created by the project, among other things, the opponents further argue.
But Vogel, in a previous email to the Bangor Daily News, noted that Midtown fulfills other goals of the comprehensive plan’s Bayside Vision document, including aims of bringing higher density housing to the area and redeveloping the unsightly former scrapyards. He also argued that, despite opponents’ complaints, most of the project falls within the B-7 business zone, where 165-foot tower heights are conditionally allowed.