This map indicates the existing pedestrian paths and new connections that will be created to coincide with the opening of a veterans health clinic on West Commercial Street in Portland. (Courtesy city of Portland)
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West Commercial Street may become more pedestrian-friendly next year, with a new pathway and improved connections to the West End neighborhood, after the Planning Board approved plans for a Veterans Affairs Community Based Outpatient Clinic.

A team headed by landowner J.B. Brown & Sons and Virginia-based developer FD Stroudwater was selected by the Department of Veterans Affairs in September 2019 to build the clinic on an undeveloped lot on the north side of Commercial Street, west of the Star Match Building.

It would include a two-story, more than 62,000-square-foot clinic, and a four-level, 385-space parking garage, with a separate 152-space surface parking lot and entrance for staff.

The area on the inland side of West Commercial Street in Portland is where a more than 62,000-square-foot Veterans Affairs health clinic and garage will be built. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

The clinic will replace existing VA clinics in Saco and Portland and will provide primary care, mental health care, and specialty care services, according to a VA representative.

Part of the plan is for a 10-foot pathway running the 1,400-foot length of the property, in an area where there now are no sidewalks. It would be developed in accordance with the 2016 West Commercial Street Multi-Modal Corridor Study.

The city would then extend that shared-use path on either side of the site to connect to existing paths and sidewalks. Some of the traffic impact fees for the project will go toward extending the pathway to the west.

That western path would likely be directed away from the road through a potential easement into adjacent land also owned by J.B Brown, said civil engineer Steve Bushey of Gorrill Palmer, and then run along an abandoned rail track and historic granite wall before connecting to the Fore River Parkway path.

The east side of the property is bordered by Emery Street, a paper street that serves as a city right of way for utilities. It was once an important pedestrian connection between the West End and waterfront, with a footbridge over the Commercial Street railroad tracks.

J.B. Brown is seeking a land swap with the city to build a driveway in the Emery Street right of way, with an easement for the city to retain access to the utilities. A pedestrian path is included in the site plans along that driveway, and discussions are underway with Portland Trails to extend that path up the hill to the West End neighborhood.

“We have been aware of the potential connection here for years,” Jaime Parker of Portland Trails said May 18, “and see the VA development as the way to get it done.”

He said Portland Trails envisions a 5- or 6-foot-wide trail of stone dust or pavement, with switchbacks to reduce the grade and a seating area at a vista. It would connect to the Salem Street trail about halfway up the hill.

“Given the steep bluff, there are no other connections for almost a half-mile in either direction,” Parker said, from Danforth Street to Harborview Park. He noted that Emery and Salem streets were historically a major walking route for dock workers, “so this was, and will be, an important link midway through the West End.”

He said they are still working out the details with J.B. Brown, and while there is no formal agreement, he is confident that the connection path will be included in the final design.

Portland Trails is also considering developing some narrow recreational trails along the bluff behind the clinic site. The area is overrun with invasive plants that would have to be managed but there are also scenic areas of mature trees that paths could pass through, where a barred owl has been sighted recently.

Back on West Commercial, a crosswalk would be added to allow pedestrians to access Canal Landing.

The driveway at Emery Street would also serve as a replacement entrance to the Star Match parking lot, eliminating the need for two curb cuts on West Commercial. The application also indicates the city would extend the shared use path in front of the Star Match building.

A city spokeswoman said the city is close to preliminary design review for that path segment, but is not certain when construction will begin.

Planning Board members who approved the site plan May 12 also expressed concern that they had not yet seen a draft traffic management plan from the VA outlining how it would reduce vehicle traffic to the site. They asked staff to report to the board when there is a draft so that the public will have the opportunity to provide input when the report is on the board’s agenda.

Another concern was that queuing for drop-offs and pickups in a traffic circle at the main entrance to the site might back up into the roadway, so a condition of the board’s approval was that the VA would monitor this situation and rectify it if necessary, which could be done by diverting traffic in the circle to an access road along the back of the building.

According to the recommendations of a traffic impact study, the developers will add a two-way center left-turn lane on West Commercial.

Neighbors raised concern about lighting coming from the roof of the parking garage. While the project design meets city light standards, the developers said they are exploring installing a solar canopy above the top floor of the garage that would completely contain the light.

At a maximum height of 42 feet, the building and parking garage end below the elevation of houses on neighboring Danforth Street. Height was a concern in the past when a zoning change was proposed for the strip along West Commercial Street that contains the building site.

“This project and this site have probably had more public comment and meetings associated with it than any project in Portland in a while,” J.B. Brown President and CEO Vin Veroneau told the board. “The results are a project that fully meets the zoning standards.”

He said the project is less tall and less dense than what was agreed to in a zone change in 2012.

The VA said construction is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2021.

“While there may be a future impact felt to the construction schedule with the unpredictability of exact pandemic waves and severity, the schedule currently still has a completion of fall 2021 with occupancy winter 2021,” representative Jonathan Barczyk said. “We will remain vigilant in moving this important project forward as safely as possible to provide expanded services for the veterans both in Portland and the surrounding areas.”