October 21, 2019
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$85 million Portland project gets approvals, but with big condition

PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland Planning Board on Tuesday night granted subdivision and conditional site plan approvals to the so-called midtown development in the city’s Bayside neighborhood, bringing the ambitious project’s winding journey through the city’s permitting process almost to a close.

But before any shovels can hit the ground, Miami-based development firm Federated Cos. must revise and resubmit its building designs to visually break up what planning board member Jack Soley called a “430-foot-long almost monolithic behemoth.”

The redesign condition is a big one for developers, who despite the approvals remain stalled at the planning board level for at least one more meeting.

The $85 million development proposal has been one of the highest profile projects in recent years in a city that has seen a number of them.

Opponents called earlier iterations of the project, which included plans for four 165-foot-tall towers, out of scale with the otherwise stocky Portland, while supporters lauded the proposal as one which could transform a long blighted area of the city.

“The city of Portland needs housing and it needs economic development and this is a prime area to accomplish those goals,” one local resident, Tom Blackburn, told the planning board Tuesday.

Tuesday night’s votes took place near the end of a five-hour meeting and represented the culmination of nearly four years of debate about the high-visibility site, starting with a purchase and sale agreement between the city and developers for the former scrapyard properties along Somerset Street in 2011.

More than a year ago — in January 2014 — the city gave the first phase of a previous version of the project approval to go ahead. But a citizens’ group calling itself Keep Portland Livable challenged the development in court, tying up the project in litigation until developers in October agreed to downsize their plans.

The newer, smaller scale proposal then went through four planning board meetings leading into the Tuesday night review.

The current version of the project includes four buildings: three six-story residential buildings and one seven-story parking garage, with retail space on the first floors of all four structures. The latest version would include 445 residential units, 828 parking spaces and more than 91,000 square feet of retail space.

The project also involves the raising of Somerset Street to place the first floor of the project above the 100-year flood plain, an infrastructure job that would cost $4 million — two-thirds of which would be paid by the city, one-third of which would be absorbed by the developers.

But while the planning board gave the project site plan and subdivision approvals Tuesday night, it included a condition of approval that will force the developers to return at least once more to seek a board sign-off.

The conditions of approval include one requiring the developers to return with revised building designs addressing board members’ interest in greater “articulation” of cornices, roof lines and exterior surfaces on the project’s Midtown Three building, which Soley described as an “impenetrable wall of building that doesn’t present any architectural features.”

Venne, representing the developers, was weary of the condition, suggesting to the board he is concerned the criteria are too vague and that the lingering design condition could trap the project in another round of lengthy board debates.

He said he will gather with the development team this week to discuss the condition and decide how the group wants to proceed.

Peter Monro of opposition group Keep Portland Livable touted the condition.

“We at Keep Portland Livable are pleased the planning board is finally applying standards to this project that we’d hoped they’d apply to the original design,” Monro said.



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