A proposed 90-bed nursing home off of Washington Avenue in Portland continued to receive strong resistance from neighborhood residents during a recent Planning Board workshop.
The proposal is to replace the existing nursing home at St. Joseph’s Rehabilitation Residence with a two-story, 58,000-square-foot facility on Merrymeeting Drive. The area, on nearly 13 acres in the wooded neighborhood, is in a residential zone and would require waivers.
City Planner Andrew Tufts told the board during their Sept. 15 workshop the proposal is for a long-term care facility in an area bordered by Gray Street and Florida Avenue. The North Deering area is in the R3 zone, he said, meaning it does allow medium-sized residential development.
Tufts said the applicants propose to replace St. Joseph’s, which was built in 1974 and “no longer meets care standards.” He said the proposal will have an entrance off Ray Street and is adjacent to the Fallbrook Woods assisted living facility already on Merrymeeting Drive.
Tufts said the applicants have already made some changes to the proposal in response to city recommendations: They reduced the number of parking spaces from 93 to 66 paved spaces and an additional 17 “structured lawn spaces” to be used for overflow parking. They also reduced the impact on nearby wetlands, and have added trees and shrubbery as buffering.
The applicants, represented by landscape architect Dan Danvers of Sebago Technics and Daniel McGuire, managing partner of the Sandy River Co., are under the name Fallbrook Commons Development LLC.
Danvers said they revised the parking area layout “to allow a greater stand of existing trees,” and will add additional landscaping. He said there is a retaining wall on the site that supports half of the proposed building and to “break up the magnitude” of the wall, they are proposing more landscaping such as evergreens, vines, and shrubs.
McGuire said he wanted to address “the role of nursing homes in a community” with the board.
“We’ve been in dozens of communities, this always comes up,” McGuire said. “Depending on a community’s zoning, it can either be viewed as an institution or a place of residence.”
McGuire said they believed nursing homes “don’t belong in industrial zones.” He said people often live in nursing homes for years, often ending up as a person’s final residence.
“They don’t want to be in a business park, they want to be in a residential neighborhood and what feels like home to them,” McGuire said. “And I believe we would want that, too.”
Portland allows nursing homes as a conditional use in residential zones, McGuire said, noting that other nursing homes in the city are in residential zones. Most are much larger than the Fallbrook proposal, he said, ranging from the Park Danforth off Forest Avenue to the Barron Center on Brighton Avenue.
“It appears the writers of the code also believed nursing homes belong in residential neighborhoods,” he said.
Board Chairman Brandon Mazer asked why the proposal is for 90 beds when the facility being replaced has around 120. McGuire said the number was based on requirements for MaineCare funding. He also said St. Joseph’s “operates closer to 100 beds,” and St. Joseph’s will be selling the beds to them.
Several members of the public asked the group to take over and upgrade the existing St. Joseph’s building instead of constructing an entirely new facility. McGuire said St. Joseph’s “has no plans” for their existing property.
“We wanted to build a new, state-of-the-art facility, and they wanted to sell the beds to us,” he said.
He said they did not explore the idea of building on St. Joseph’s land, since they wanted to create a campus feel on Fallbrook.
Several employees spoke during the presentation in favor of the proposal.
Dr. Richard Marino, a geriatric physician and medical director at St. Joseph’s, said a state-of-the-art facility will greatly improve the quality of life for people in the nursing home. During the coronavirus pandemic, he said, it is more important than ever for residents to have private rooms “to live in comfort to achieve a high quality of life for the remainder of their days.”
But Jenirose Friedkin, a resident of the neighborhood, said she bought her home in March and didn’t know there were any development plans. She said the reason she bought was because of the wooded land nearby, and while she agreed a new, state-of-the-art facility is important, she didn’t “feel like I’ve gotten an answer as to what is wrong with the site of St. Joseph’s now that it is already developed and ready for more to be built there.”
“This neighborhood is very unique,” she said.
Another neighbor, Leslie Clark, said the new development puts the nature of the neighborhood at risk. She said while no one wants to live in an institution, the applicants were “sugar-coating” the impact their project would have on the neighborhood.
“I think this has a huge impact,” she said, adding there had to be a way to make this a “win-win” for everyone involved. “It should be a win for the neighborhood, not a negative impact on the neighborhood. This project does not benefit everybody.”
Board members did not make any decisions, although the majority seemed to support the developers’ willingness to make adjustments.
Cumberland Ave. housing project gets OK
The Portland Planning Board unanimously approved a plan for a 60-unit apartment building on the site of the former Maria’s restaurant at 337 Cumberland Ave.
Vice Chair Maggie Stanley and board member David Silk both recused themselves from the Sept. 15 vote.
The plan is a partnership between the Portland Housing Authority and Youth & Family Outreach, a nonprofit early childhood development agency that operates in a former church next door at 331 Cumberland Ave.
The church will remain part of the project and continue as a child-care facility operated by Youth & Family Outreach. It will be accessible from the larger apartment complex by a one-story connector.
Once constructed, the building will contain apartments ranging from studios to three-bedroom units. The plan calls for 48 permanently affordable units, and 12 priced at market rate.
Thirty-six of the affordable apartments are targeted at households earning at or below 50 percent of the area median income. Twelve units are targeted at or below 60 percent AMI.
The proposal is required to provide at least six units with a total of eight bedrooms at or below 100 percent AMI. But since the proposal calls for 80 percent of its units to be between 50 and 60 percent AMI, it would provide a greater percentage of affordable units at lower-income targets.
The building will appear as seven stories when viewed from Portland Street, but because of its slope will only appear as six stories standing on Cumberland between Preble and Brown streets. The former restaurant at the site will be demolished to make way for the apartment building.
Board Chairman Brandon Mazer said he struggled with the decision, not because of the value of a project like this for the city, but because he said there were inconsistencies in how the board was provided information and requests when compared with projects of similar size. He said he didn’t want to punish this particular project for that, however, and just wanted to see greater consistency within project applications.
“I think the project itself is a good one for the city,” Mazer said.
— Colin Ellis