Plans to redevelop the historic Mercy Hospital on State Street into hundreds of apartments are progressing, although neighborhood concerns about parking linger.
The project would transform most of the block between Pine and Spring streets into a mix of residential and commercial uses.
The Planning Board seemed largely receptive to requests from the developers in a Nov. 17 workshop. Caitlin Cameron, urban designer for the city, told the Board the plan would require a zone change from R6 to B3, which is a more permissive, business-oriented zone. The new zone would connect to an existing B3 district around Longfellow Square.
The existing R6 zone is “fairly limited,” Cameron said, and mostly allows only residential uses. The R6 is also more restrictive for dimensional standards needed for buildout and the number of units the developers are planning. She said the B3 is “far more permissive” and has more opportunities to accommodate parking needs.
Cameron said the project will have an 85-foot height limit for the side of the project facing State Street, and a 45-foot height limit facing Winter Street.
Board members seemed receptive to the zone change and will take the subject up again in a public hearing ahead of a vote.
Mercy Hospital, which has been in the West End since 1918, will wind down operations on the property through early 2022, before moving to its newer Fore River Parkway campus.
“When they leave, we hope to begin the redevelopment process immediately,” developer Jonathan Culley, co-owner of Portland-based Redfern Properties, said. Redfern is partnering with the NewHeight Group, another Portland-based real estate development company, which did most of the negotiating with Mercy.
Culley said the redevelopment process is expected to take 16 months, so the building is expected to open in the second half of 2023. Culley said the hope is for Mercy to continue to operate a clinic in the new development once it is fully realized.
The redevelopment will create a nearly 196,000-square-foot mixed-use project, repurposing both Mercy Hospital and the adjacent Morrison House into a mix of affordable housing, workforce housing, senior-care units, commercial and office space, a gym, coworking space, and public space.
Culley said two parcels of land will be sold to Community Housing of Maine, one for an affordable housing development for families, and one for senior housing. He said the affordable housing will be aimed at people earning 50-60 percent of the area median income.
Additionally, he said, a large, surface parking lot across the street on Spring Street will be sold to an out-of-state developer and for development of a senior independent living facility.
In total, the goal is to create about 400 new housing units. “It’s well understood we need new housing in downtown Portland,” Culley said.
Cameron said parking requirement projections call for 225 spaces. However, as with many recent city projects, the developers are seeking to reduce that requirement: their parking analysis suggests there will be demand for only 59 spaces, and they are proposing providing 86 spaces on site.
Culley acknowledged parking is one of the biggest concerns residents of the neighborhood have about the project. But he said more parking usually means less room for affordable housing projects.
Additionally, he said, offering projects with less parking encourages residents to walk, bicycle, or use public transportation, rather than own private vehicles.
Ian Jacob, president of the West End Neighborhood Association, said while his organization doesn’t usually take a position on development, WENA is “always supportive of more housing.” Given that half the current Mercy campus is surfaced parking area, he said any additional housing will be an improvement.
“As an association, it’s been great working with the developers in terms of their outreach to us,” he said. “That’s definitely commendable. What they have proposed is a lot of good amenities, good open space. They are looking at small, commercial spaces.”
Jacob said parking has been a neighborhood concern, along with how tall the final buildout will be on Winter Street, which is a one-way street with dozens of homes and apartment buildings.
Jacob also praised the project for its desire to increase walkability in the neighborhood. He said given that significant parts of the proposal include senior housing or affordable housing, the parking demand created by those units should not be the same as if standard, market-rate apartments were built.
But he also said he had raised some concerns about what happens to various elements of the neighborhood once Mercy is gone.
For example, on Spring Street between State and Winter streets, and unlike the rest of the area, parking has only been allowed for 15 minutes or for emergency vehicles. He said the developer should work with the city to reclaim that block for additional parking.
“There’s still a lot of time out in front of this before anything really happens,” Jacob said. “There’s going to continue to be back and forth with people in the neighborhood and developer. As long as that continues, that is great.”
City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who represents the West End district, said redeveloping Mercy is “an interesting project,” although parking and new construction, in general, are always concerns in the neighborhood.
But, like Jacob, Thibodeau praised the developers for their communication with neighbors.