Looking over a pool filled with a metal tangle of combination chair desks and other furniture at the former Maine Girls Academy building on Stevens Avenue, Kevin Bunker imagined a new fitness center he and a business partner plan to open in the space. A large classroom across the hall would be a cardio and weights room, its wall facing Stevens Avenue replaced with windows.
Down the hall, past a basketball court and across a large, open two-floor atrium, Julie Walsh was reimagining the space in the “Lion’s Den,” the former school food service, which she ran for 10 years before opening Tally’s Kitchen at Bayside on Marginal Way.
She will be opening a second location of the cafe and a catering business from her old kitchen, and was already thinking about ways the cafe could interact with other uses in the building.
“Say someone is renting the auditorium, they might want to have a cocktail party at night, with hors d’oeuvres,” she said during a tour of the building led by Bunker Dec. 19. “… They could use us for the food.”
Bunker, a founder of real estate development and management company Developers Collaborative, said he likes doing things that aren’t common in Maine; his plans for a mixed-use wellness center at 631 Stevens Ave. fits that description.
He received the go-ahead for the project Dec. 16, when the City Council unanimously approved a zoning change for the property, despite some neighbors’ concerns that the change could bring unwanted development in the future.
Bunker initially considered building housing on the 51,000-square-foot building on the Sisters of Mercy campus he acquired in 2018. But the layout was not conducive to apartments because of the amount of common areas in wide hallways and the atrium, gymnasium, pool and 480-seat auditorium. Instead, he thought about what could be done with what was there, and a mix of uses that might complement each other while being good for the city, neighborhood, and for the other tenants on the campus.
What he came up with for the former school was a community wellness center.
In addition to running the fitness center on the first floor, he would rent out the basketball court and auditorium, and the classrooms on one wing will be a nursery school/day-care center. Growing Learners has already signed a 10-year lease to run the day care, he said, and he plans to rent the second floor classrooms to commercial tenants, which would make the center financially sustainable.
“From a real estate perspective, what makes (mixed uses) valuable is that each one makes the other a little more valuable,” he told councilors Dec 16. “This becomes a place where a family can go, work out, drop their kids off (at the day-care center) and afterwards grab a snack.
“That to me is community. The basketball folks and the fitness folks get to know each other and work together on training programs, that makes the basketball program a little more viable, and that makes the fitness center have a little more income.”
The mix is so unique that the city Planning Office had trouble finding a place for it in its zoning rules.
Bunker tried to fit his plan into the property’s R5 residential zone, under the permitted use “community hall,” but according to the definition, a community hall must be run by a nonprofit for nonprofit purposes. And R5 limits the types of businesses and commercial uses that can operate in the zone, which Bunker feared would make it difficult to find tenants for the second floor.
Although they will be developed at a later phase, the upper floor commercial tenants are an important piece of the mix, Bunker said, especially at a time when he is already making large investments in other projects on the campus.
So he applied for a zoning change to business zone B-2b. The planning office felt his proposal would fit into the definition of a “personal services,” allowed in B1 zone, which would bring fewer impacts to the neighborhood long term than a zone change to B-2b.
The majority of public comment opposed the change.
“When we all purchase property in the city we purchase with open eyes about the zone restrictions that accompany a given property,” said Ann Roderick of Washington Avenue. “I actually believe zone changes should be hard, that they should be infrequent and definitely not automatic… The proposed zone change would forever alter Walton Street, Pershing Street, Holly Street, Morgan Court, Dingley Court, historic Stevens Avenue and beyond.”
“I’m very concerned,” said Elizabeth Forest of Walton Street. “It sounds lovely, what’s being described, but what happens if the ownership changes, and what happens if they decide to build out and out and out? There could be some building with a business, I don’t want it…. This is such a special area, such a special neighborhood and it’s got so much personality, and so many beautiful things around that you don’t need a bunch of stores there.”
Councilor Justin Costa, whose district includes the property, said most of the opposition he heard was not about Bunker’s planned use of the building, but about what might be built there if he sells it.
“There’s no good answer to that,” Costa said. “We can’t plan for every contingency that could occur in the future. I vote on what is the best outcome for the neighborhood. If this falls through and something else comes along, I as a councillor can do something about it.”
Christine Grimando, the city’s planning and urban development director, told councilors that if the school is torn down, any structure that replaces it would have to be smaller than the existing building under the B1 requirements. The open spaces on the campus were not protected under the R5 zoning rules, she said.
Grimando noted the city’s Comprehensive Plan identifies Stevens Avenue as a “priority corridor,” meaning it is one where the city would evaluate zoning and make transit investments to support added density and development.
Councilor Belinda Ray said that rather than being “spot zoning,” as some opponents charge, the zone change should be considered the first in the priority corridor. She said B1 zones are “perfectly consistent” with residential uses, particularly in those corridors on bus lines.
“I know people don’t want to hear that, but we have to grow responsibly in this city and we have to grow smart,” she said. “This is what we want — we want walkable neighborhoods, where people can access the bus, where people are healthy because they are pedestrians, because they are bikers … because they can access the fitness center, or the local grocery or whatever they need without getting in a car, and then they can hop on a bus if they need to go further. This is the development I see for this city.”
Several councilors said Bunker’s record of projects has benefitted the neighborhoods and city as a whole. On Dec. 11 he and Developers Collaborative were awarded a 2019 Economic Development Achievement award by the city and the Portland Development Corp., presented to “a visionary individual, business or organization that has had a significant impact upon strengthening the city’s economy,” according to a city press release.
The firm emphasizes smart growth; environmental sustainability; affordable housing; innovative design; employs a community-based approach to development, and participates in public-private partnerships to achieve public goals, the release said.
During the Dec. 19 tour of the property, Bunker said his inspiration for his brand of development came from his partner Richard Berman, who taught him the business. The other piece, he said, was that he started his career as a planner. He graduated in the top of his class from Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 2007 with a master’s degree in urban planning.
“Planners are encouraged to look at the world … as a connected whole, to make things better,” he said. “You can’t just create your own little money-making machine on the earth, because real estate affects everybody.”
Unlike a business that sells products that people can opt whether or not to buy, he said, “when you build a building, it affects everybody that walks by it; it affects everybody that works in it and lives in it.”
When deciding whether to purchase a property, he considers whether he can make a return while doing it in a way he can feel good about and whether he would want to show it to his kids.
“I don’t want to buy something that’s super expensive that means I have to put up a Walmart to make it work,” he said. “I’d just rather not do that project. There’s lots of stuff I don’t have to do.”
He counted 136 affordable units that Development Collaborative projects have added in Portland and South Portland, and estimated the collaborative added 500 affordable units in the state.
A couple of projects Bunker led that were firsts include the Crescent Heights apartment building on the West End, the first multi-family building in Maine to achieve platinum-LEED certification, and the Nathan Clifford School redevelopment, which was the first federal historic tax credit project after the program had to be revamped because of a lawsuit.
“We had to come up with all the legal documents that met the new rules,” he said.
During the tour of the building, Bunker walked down a wing on the first floor where the day-care center would operate, its hallway lined with lockers painted a soft green. A chemistry lab still had work counters, sinks, and cases holding bottles of chemicals, and an art room still had bookcases of student paintings.
Throughout the building furniture and supplies were labeled with stickers, because Bunker has opened the building to local public schools, charter schools and nonprofits to claim what they’d like, and he said he has so far donated $7,000 worth of supplies to the Portland Public Schools.
Then, standing on the stage of the 480-seat auditorium before running out to a meeting in Freeport, he briefly talked about his other interests besides development: hiking and spending time with his family, and his goal of running a half-marathon in every state (he’s got 27 to go) and reading 100 books per year.
“I have five left,” Bunker said. “I can do it.”