BELFAST, Maine — What should the limit be when it comes to the height of buildings in part of downtown Belfast?
The answer could guide Belfast developers such as Paul Overgaag with plans to transform Washington Street, a formerly industrial area that city planners believe has a lot of potential.
Overgaag, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based restaurateur and entrepreneur who has owned property in Northport for more than a dozen years, owns two abutting properties in downtown Belfast — the Green Store building at 71 Main St. and the Harbor Artisans building at 69 Main St. He would like to convert a small lot behind the buildings into a mixed-use development with retail, apartments and office space, and would love to have additional space to grow.
Residents will be asked next week to weigh in on a proposal to raise the height limits for buildings in lower downtown from 48 to 60 feet.
Overgaag said that extra 12 feet could really help the project get off the ground.
“The difference between 48 feet and 60 feet is all about economics. You create so much more square footage,” Overgaag told the BDN on Tuesday, adding that he is prepared to hear from critics about the amendment. “I think there will be a certain element of freak out, because nothing has changed in the last 100 years in Belfast.”
But that’s not true, according to Wayne Marshall, the director of code and planning for the city, who said that changes in the past century just haven’t spurred growth and new development downtown. Several decades ago, downtown Belfast was dense with houses, businesses, factories, industrial buildings, a train station and more. Nowadays, many of those structures are gone, replaced by “big, open spaces,” he said, including greenspace and parking lots.
“There’s no comparison with Belfast as it is today and the past,” he said. “Belfast still has really a pretty significant amount of undeveloped space downtown.”
Washington Street, located just a stone’s throw from Main Street and overlooking Belfast Harbor, is home to a fair amount of that undeveloped space. Overgaag’s lot, which is just 1/10 of an acre, is part of it. But a larger parcel belongs to Diane Bergey, who owns the Trustworthy Hardware building at 75 Main St. and more than an acre of vacant land behind it along Washington Street.
In 2015, Bergey and her late mother, Eunice Palmer, launched a project to demolish several buildings on the land that had once been home to a blacksmith shop, a car dealership and a coal gasification plant. The women envisioned eventually developing the cleared site into retail space and apartments.
“We’re approaching it as a very happy thing,” Bergey told the BDN at that time. “[The property] gets to be part of Belfast again.”
But developing Washington Street has been a slow process, Marshall said, and one that entailed a major brownfields cleanup of the former gasification plant. Central Maine Power, which had operated the plant in the 1930s, paid about $1.3 million to remove 12 or 13 feet of contaminated soil from the site.
“Now, it’s much more suitable for redevelopment,” Marshall said.
The street still needs infrastructure upgrades, he said, including connections to the city sewer system, storm drains, street lamps and sidewalks.
“The intent is to make it part of the downtown network, instead of something so isolated,” Marshall said.
If Overgaag does develop his property, the city could use tax revenues from the new building and other properties within the downtown waterfront tax increment financing zone to help pay for those upgrades, according to the director. Changing the building height ordinance for Washington Street is one piece of the puzzle, he said, and can give developers more options.
Overgaag, who said his proposal is in exploratory stages, is working with local architecture firm OPAL. He has yet to submit an application to the city, but an artist’s rendering of the way the project would look from Main Street shows a more modern-looking, gray-and-glass structure peeking out over the roofs of the old brick buildings that line the street. Other views show the project includes brick walls that help it blend in with its neighbors. If it is constructed, it would be the first privately-owned downtown building built “from scratch” in at least 21 years, Marshall said.
Overgaag thinks it’s time.
“I love the town, and I think the town is ready to become a little bigger, and serve a little bit more of a regional function,” the property owner said. “That’s why I’m investing, or hope to invest in Belfast.”
The Belfast Planning Board will hold a public hearing on changing the height ordinance at 6 p.m. Jan. 29 at Belfast City Hall.