Portland city councilors on Monday unanimously approved an exchange with the Maine Department of Transportation that would net the city a new, $1.6 million trail corridor on the peninsula, buildable acreage near the Fore River Parkway, and a parking lot on Marginal Way.
In return, the state will take ownership of the International Marine Terminal on Commercial Street, which the city now leases to the Maine Port Authority, and the Cliff Island ferry landing.
Greg Mitchell, a consultant for the city and its former economic development director, said the swap, which was recommended by the Housing and Economic Development Committee, will transfer significant maintenance costs from the city to the state.
He said the most significant part of the trade is the former Union Branch Rail Corridor between Forest Avenue and Park Avenue. It runs along Interstate 295, behind Deering Oaks Park, Fitzpatrick Stadium, and Hadlock Field, and includes the train trestle over Park Avenue.
The city’s plan is to create a multi-purpose trail that City Manager Jon Jennings said would be paid for by MDOT. The city would only have to pay for final touches, like benches. The project will connect to an existing trail network, and the city is under contract for the last remaining trail connection between Park Avenue and the Portland Transportation Center near Thompson’s Point.
“We estimate this to be a multimillion-dollar investment the MDOT would be paying for,” Jennings said.
Mitchell said the 10-acre Wye Property near County Way and the Fore River Parkway has some known environmental issues, but city staff believes it can be developed. If it turns out the site cannot be developed, Mitchell said the city has six months to back out of the transaction.
“This is one of the few remaining large tracts of land (on the peninsula) that can support development,” he said.
This site is one of several the city considered for construction of a 200-bed emergency services shelter now planned off Riverside Street, Councilor Belinda Ray said. She said the state eventually took the parcel off the table, although it was clear the city remained interested.
The final piece of property coming back from the state is the park-and-ride lot on Marginal Way, which Mitchell said the city intends to continue to use for transportation activities.
No money will be exchanged in the transaction because the city and MDOT consider the properties to be of equal value. According to a 2018 MDOT memo, the total value of what the city is receiving is nearly $3.9 million, including $1.6 million for trail improvements and approximately $2.2 million in assessed value on the properties.
The most significant financial impact comes from the city handing over the International Marine Terminal, which will result in $145,000 in lost revenue annually beginning in fiscal year 2023. The lease of the IMT to the Maine Port Authority still has 20 years remaining, for a total of about $2.9 million in revenue.
Mitchell, however, said the city would see “significant savings” by shifting responsibility for the Cliff Island wharf to the state.
Request for Washington Ave. zone change fails
A Washington Avenue home brewer hoping to expand his business will have to start the application process from scratch after the City Council Monday night unanimously rejected a zoning amendment he sought.
The vote upheld a recommendation from the Planning Board, which unanimously voted in April to reject the proposed amendment as inconsistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
Newscapes Brewing was founded in 2018 by Jeff Curran in his home at 165 Washington Ave. He initially sought to open a tasting room, then brewery and restaurant, but was unable to procure the necessary licenses. Curran indicated he is now operating a restaurant that serves drinks.
Deputy Planning Director Kevin Kraft, however, told councilors the city is not aware of a restaurant being allowed at that address, and Councilor Belinda Ray said she believes Curran does not have a liquor license.
“It’s very unclear what Mr. Curran is operating,” Kraft said.
Curran, meanwhile, said he has since scaled back what he had hoped to do with the tasting room by removing any plans for outdoor entertainment.
“I just want to be able to go back to doing what I was doing three years ago,” he said.
Planning Department staff and the Planning Board have said a text amendment would have been a better avenue than a map amendment to achieve Curran’s goal. The difference is a text amendment adds new language to existing code, which would then apply to all similarly zoned areas, while a map amendment would have put his property into an entirely different zone.
Curran’s current address is in the B1 zone, which allows for smaller retail establishments, but he wants the property to be zoned B2B, which allows higher-density businesses.
Planning Board Chairman Brandon Mazer told the council the board made its recommendation in part because it wanted to avoid contract zoning. Additionally, he said members were concerned about allowing greater density for Curran’s property.
Planning and Urban Development Director Christine Grimando acknowledged that part of Washington Avenue is an “eclectic” mix of zones, with the B1, B2, B2B, and other residential zones surrounding Curran’s property. Just down the street are several restaurants and businesses like Maine Craft Distillery, and properties across the street from Curran’s home are zoned differently.
Grimando said there are some overlap uses in B1 and B2B, though they typically differ in the size and scale of permissible businesses.
Ray and Councilor Pious Ali said it was important to note Curran spent considerable time and money going through the amendment application process, but in the end, they could not support his request. Ray also said planning staff tried to convince Curran to seek a text amendment, but he chose not to.
If he chooses, Curran will now have to apply for a text amendment, although Ray noted there is no guarantee he will get one. His application would still need approval from the Planning Board and City Council.
— Colin Ellis
City pursues Riverside shelter as referendum heads to ballot
The Portland City Council will hold a public hearing July 19 on an upcoming referendum that would tighten restrictions on new emergency shelters.
The announcement came as a consent item without discussion during Monday’s council meeting, about a week after the Housing and Economic Development Committee unanimously sent the council a second letter of agreement with Developers Collaborative for a proposed 200-bed shelter off Riverside Street that city officials hope to shield from the referendum.
The Riverside project needs three letters of agreement; the council on June 7 approved the first, which allowed the developer to begin design work and the early stages of a public engagement process.
The second letter of agreement, which will need two readings and a vote by the council, compensates Developers Collaborative for costs incurred during the design phase.
The final recommendation that must come from the committee will be for a ground lease and master lease. The shelter would be built on city property but the building will be constructed and owned by the developer and leased to the city.
Greg Mitchell, Portland’s former economic development director and now a consultant for the city, said during the June 15 HEDC meeting that the latest agreement will pay Developers Collaborative $250,000 for design and third-party consultant work. Mitchell said City Manager Jon Jennings, per the agreement with Developers Collaborative, will approve the contracts with those consultants.
If the city terminates the agreement with Developers Collaborative, it would have to pay half of the fee, or $125,000. Additionally, the city would also have to pay any consultant fees already incurred.
This second agreement, once approved by the council, will move the project to a site plan review by the Planning Board in the fall. Mitchell said the hope is to get the design work complete so a site plan application can be filed as early as July.
The city has maintained that if it maintains a very tight schedule and the project receives Planning Board approval in the fall, it can successfully skirt the referendum, even if the citizen initiative is successful.
Last week, the city clerk affirmed that petition gatherers had secured 2,300 valid signatures, or about 800 more than the 1,500 necessary to put the measure on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The referendum, promoted by a group called Smaller Shelters for Portland, would limit homeless shelters in the city to 50 beds.
— Colin Ellis