PORTLAND, Maine — Northeastern University made waves Monday when it revealed plans to bring up to 4,000 graduate students and 300 jobs to Portland at its new technology institute over the next eight years.
But some development experts question whether the city — with high rents, low office and residential vacancies, limited parking and scant regional public transportation — can absorb the changes needed for the $100 million project.
“There’s probably not room downtown today,” said Justin Lamontagne, a partner at Portland real estate firm NAI The Dunham Group, referring to space available to build the new institute. “But there could be some loosening with a couple of companies thinking of moving to the suburbs because of the lack of parking. All it would take is one large company to move out.”
Greg Mitchell, director of Portland’s economic development department, said there is room for growth when considering both downtown and the surrounding areas. He pointed to empty buildings, including the Time and Temperature Building on Congress Street, that could be redeveloped.
“We’re continuing to look at our entire community and make sure that we’re handling growth in a responsible way both on the peninsula, which is the center of our business base, and off the peninsula,” Mitchell said. “I would direct you to Northeastern’s campus in Boston. They’re used to operating in an urban footprint, so I don’t see this as any different.”
The institute, which has goals to train critically needed workers and to eventually attract new businesses to Maine, is seeking temporary space now and plans to build a new campus in downtown Portland in three years.
Lamontagne said the new Roux Institute might do better looking beyond the downtown to areas including South Portland and Westbrook.
That also goes for rental and other housing needed to serve students and staff.
“There is housing being built in greater Portland. But there’s very little housing being built in downtown Portland,” said Brit Vitalius, principal at Portland’s Vitalius Real Estate Group. “I think it’s an exciting opportunity for the whole area and the state, and will continue to challenge this community to think about housing and transportation in a bigger way than we have in the past.”
Portland’s mayor and its councillors have prioritized plans for affordable housing and transportation.
Mitchell said there are a number of transportation projects in the works, including an autonomous vehicle launch planned for Commercial Street this year. Traffic lights using artificial intelligence are already in place on Forest Avenue and Franklin Street. They can monitor traffic, communicate with one another and move traffic through intersections rather than waiting for a fixed signal time. The next planned location for an AI traffic light is Commercial Street, he said.
The city also is working with new businesses on ways to accommodate workers and traffic, he said. When WEX said it would move more than 1,000 employees to the Portland waterfront, the city asked it to consider transportation to relieve congestion. WEX bought three shuttles for employees in its South Portland offices and other locations, Mitchell said.
Available and affordable housing in downtown Portland remains a challenge. Vitalius said the apartment vacancies have been nearly zero for more than a decade. And one-bedroom apartments in Portland now average $1,250 a month, he said. But some planned housing could relieve the pinch from the expected influx of new people.
The University of Southern Maine this week proposed building a 577-bed dormitory with rooms and apartments ranging from $800 to $1,200 per month.
“That could take some of the pressure off housing that is currently being used in and around Deering and in and around downtown,” Vitalius said. “We’re also seeing growth and revitalization in Westbrook, South Portland, Biddeford and Saco, where hundreds of more units are going in.”
Some of the students are expected to come from existing businesses in Maine to get advanced training. That’s part of the effort to help retain employees who otherwise would have to move out of state to get an advanced degree, Josh Broder, CEO of Portland technology company Tilson, said at the institute’s announcement Monday.
“It’s not clear how many of the people will be new to the area,” Vitalius said.