The University of Southern Maine sees the major renovation of its Portland campus as transforming it from a commuter hub to a residential student community.
But some neighbors continue to be concerned about the project’s impact, particularly the need for a new parking garage and the process that city officials are using to review the project.
USM introduced the project to the Planning Board in August. It includes a new quad, a 60,000-square-foot student center on Bedford Street, and a 220,000-square-foot, 580-bed residence hall mostly for upperclassmen, law students, and advanced-degree candidates.
According to project documents, 25 percent of USM’s undergraduate students last fall lived in residence halls on the Gorham campus. Almost all graduate and law students live off-campus, many in the Portland area.
The new construction would provide a “safe, high-quality and affordable student life environment,” for those attending the university, and also provide upper-level students with housing close to academic resources and support, according to the school.
But while many nearby residents support USM’s broader vision for the new buildings, the possibility of a new parking garage being built close to people’s homes is causing concern.
The initial proposal did not fully address parking, and some of the university’s current spaces will be lost to the renovations. USM is considering constructing a 425-car parking garage at 68 Falmouth St., which bisects a residential neighborhood, to meet the anticipated demand resulting from the new construction. Building the garage at 88 Bedford St., adjacent to the university’s existing garage, is also a possibility. Both sites currently function as parking lots.
Several neighbors brought their concerns to a Planning Board workshop last week.
Oakdale Street resident Annie Leahy said while she supports the “vision, ingenuity and aspiration” for USM to become “a world-class university,” she feels the institution has chosen to “turn its back” on the community with the existing proposal.
To emphasize the connection she and other neighbors have to USM, Leahy said they sit on their stoops and “cheer on the graduating students in the spring” and the neighborhood children “consider the quad their backyard.”
“Yet the proposal that is before you tonight for a much-needed and anticipated student center and residence hall fails to incorporate and consider that community,” she said. “Instead, you have placed us on the sidelines; entry and exit to a parking garage.”
Leahy said a letter submitted to the Planning Board last week regarding concerns about the project garnered 39 neighborhood signatures “in barely 24 hours.” In a follow up interview this week, Leahy said the note was about “proper process and planning.”
“The request is for the city to be able to review the entire plan, with adequate information about how specifically USM intends to increase parking needs before allowing it to break ground on a $100 million project,” she said.
Mike Carey, a resident of the same Oakdale Street address as Leahy, also spoke and said while most neighbors are in “strong support of the expansion of the USM Portland campus,” he thinks the university is not thinking of the project as a “holistic growth.”
“There is a synergy (in that) the USM campus is good for Portland and Portland is good for the USM campus,” he said. “I feel like unfortunately right now Portland isn’t getting included in the expansion.”
USM President Glenn Cummings last week said if the university goes forward with the Falmouth Street proposal, the project would require a separate application and approval from the Planning Board.
However, in an August letter to the board, Carey used this point as further reasoning for his opposition.
“I’m beside myself that USM is permitting the student center and dormitory prior to permitting the parking garage,” he wrote. “From a process perspective, it’s confounding.”
Likewise, in an Oct. 9 letter to the Planning Board, Fessenden Street resident Sara Corbett said she thinks it is important the city evaluate parking considerations in conjunction with approving the new construction.
Corbett urged the board to make any permits for the broader expansion “contingent on USM’s ability to identify and obtain proper permits and community buy-in for the additional parking required with such a sizable expansion.”
She also cited the Bedford Street option as a “viable alternative site” to Falmouth Street, because it’s “not directly connected to any residential streets or buildings.”
Cummings said university officials have had “two extensive meetings” with neighbors about the parking garage and overall project, and they plan to have another in early November.
A public hearing is also required before the city can approve the plans.
University officials also discussed USM’s recent Transportation Demand Management Plan with the board, which calls for reducing parking demand by 10-14 percent at peak hours by 2025.
City Planner Christian Roadman said city staff is hoping for a “proposed updated parking plan” outlining how USM plans to provide the additional 400 parking spaces that will be necessary for the development.
Roadman said such a plan could involve “rethinking existing parking lots or proposed parking lots,” as well as renting nearby lots and shuttling students to and from them.
Aaron Witham, USM assistant director of facilities management for sustainability, discussed the traffic impact of the proposal.
Witham said a traffic impact analysis showed “minimum increase in vehicle trips” due to the residential nature of the demand increase, compared with the student population that now commutes.
The university will also be implementing pedestrian safety measures on Bedford Street, Falmouth Street, and Forest Avenue as a result of an increase in foot traffic.
The university has also proposed 27 initiatives “to entice people to get out of single-occupancy vehicles” – walk initiatives like fitness challenges. It is also proposing biking initiatives, which include co-launching a bike-share program with the city.
The Planning Board was largely supportive of the overall project in their comments, with Chair Brandon Mazer reiterating that the proposal in question is for the dormitory and student center construction.
Vice Chair Maggie Stanley said while she thinks the university’s Transportation Demand Management plan is “strong,” she thinks plans for parking need to be more concrete before the board moves forward.
“I don’t want to walk away from this site approval for this great project, don’t get me wrong, knowing that we need 300 parking spaces for it and don’t know where those are going to go,” she said. “There’s pushback already from a parking garage that we haven’t even planned.”
Attorney Mary Costigan of Portland law firm Bernstein Shur, representing USM, emphasized the parking garage is not part of the application process for the overall project.
She said after hearing concerns from neighbors this summer, USM immediately organized the first neighborhood meeting, where neighbors gave input.
“Just for the record I do need to say that USM has taken a really open and transparent approach with the neighborhood, bringing them into the site selection process and the process for the garage,” she said.
Similarly, Cummings said he did not hear any new grievances during the workshop. He said what was said ignored the amount of communication and progress there has been between USM and its neighbors.
“They have influenced us in great ways and we have to come back to them,” Cummings said, “(leaving them) in a good spot in order for us to proceed.”
West Commercial St. cold storage project gets OK
A 74-foot tall cold storage facility will be built on the West Commercial Street waterfront after the Planning Board, despite objections from nearby residents, unanimously approved construction last week.
Maine International Cold Storage Facility will build the 107,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse on 17.9 acres of state-owned land next to the International Marine Terminal, just west of the Casco Bay Bridge.
Treadwell Franklin Infrastructure of Yarmouth will lead the development along with Amber Infrastructure Group. Eimskip, the Icelandic shipping company that operates out of the neighboring terminal, selected the Treadwell/Amber group in 2018, after Eimskip’s original partner in the endeavor, Atlanta-based real estate investment trust Americold, pulled out.
More than 80 city residents submitted a letter to the board in August in opposition to the plan, mainly because of its size and location in a marine-use zone.
Planning Board members have also debated the traffic impact of the warehouse, specifically how it would affect the intersection of West Commercial Street and Beach Street, which a recent traffic study deemed a “high-crash location.”
Before approving the proposal last week, board members discussed other elements of the project, including its exterior design and landscaping.
Much of the feedback in the Oct. 13 public hearing was in support of the project, but a few people reiterated their displeasure.
Salem St. resident Jo Coyne, who has spoken at past meetings, again asked the board not to approve the warehouse, which she called “way too big.”
“The facility as designed is fine except it doesn’t belong on this site,” she said.
Coyne also suggested the building should be moved back, to make way for future expansion of the front of the building, and that a third-party traffic study should be conducted that considers the impact of the project on nearby streets.
On the other hand, Joe Marro, director of advocacy at the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said his organization supports the facility and believes it will “help grow (Portland’s) working waterfront.”
“The chamber is a contributing stakeholder in the city’s Comprehensive Plan and we see the international cold storage facility as an integral part of that plan,” he said.
Likewise, some board members, including Chair Brandon Mazer, noted the proposal’s potential benefits, not only to Portland but also to the state.
Mazer acknowledged that approval has been a “long process,” and said while some members of the public may be frustrated, the Planning Board’s role is “often more limited than what people want it to be.”
“Our role tonight is not to determine how an applicant should run their business or the economic viability of that business,” he said. “It’s really to determine whether the application meets the site plan standards and the conditional use standards, and I think it does on all accounts.”
— Elizabeth Clemente