A plan to move Portland’s health and human services programs to a downtown Forest Avenue office building has the support of some city officials but is generating opposition because of a lack of process and notice to neighbors.
City councilors only found out about the plan for 39 Forest Ave. on April 9, three days before it was listed on a council committee agenda, and they only have a matter of weeks to approve the proposed lease agreement for the building. Driving the timetable is the July 1 expiration of the city’s lease on Lancaster Street.
Developer Jonathan Culley of Redfern Properties, who is partnering with Maine College of Art to redevelop an office building at 45 Forest Ave. as a residence hall for MECA students, told councilors he has concerns about the city placing these services so close to the new residence hall and its impact on the safety of students who will live in the building.
“I know staff intentions are good, and everyone is trying to do the right thing, but the process around this seems wholly insufficient,” Culley told the Housing and Human Services Committee.
He said the city would have to begin renovations on Forest Avenue in the next six weeks, so the City Council would have to approve the lease agreement in May, which leaves very little time for the public to be involved. He pointed out the city’s Riverside shelter proposal took several years to be approved, in a “long and involved public process.”
“Not everyone liked the result, but they felt the process was transparent,” Culley said. “I encourage you to view this as more than a real estate transaction.”
In a later interview, Culley added that his development firm is pleased to be working with MECA and is looking forward to working with the city to “see if we can get a win-win.”
Kristen Dow, director of health and human services, said the city first looked at the Forest Avenue building in February 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic exploded. She said the building owners reached back out to the city a month and a half ago to say the building was still for rent.
“That was something we couldn’t pass up,” Dow said about the prospect of consolidating social services in one location. She said discussions about consolidation go back as far as 2004 when she started working for the city.
Portland now has several locations that provide different social services, including the Public Health Division office on Lancaster Street and the city’s Needle Exchange Program on India Street. Health and Human Services administration are mostly at City Hall.
Mayor Kate Snyder told the Phoenix that while the council only formally learned of the Forest Avenue proposal on April 9, city staff had been working on it for quite a while. “It’s been on the staff’s radar for clearly enough time for them to put together the whole vision for consolidated services,” Snyder said.
She said the consolidated building will benefit clients and staff by creating efficiencies under one roof. She also said from what she has gathered, no one is objecting to the idea of consolidation, just the particular location.
“The hesitation is location, and that’s always the question,” Snyder said. “Is this going to be a good neighbor? I think that’s what we need to work through and talk through and process through.”
The mayor said she will be speaking this week with City Manager Jon Jennings and Councilor Belinda Ray, who sits on the HHS Committee, about a community engagement process.
“The work is ongoing, and in order to get this in front of the council, we will take our time and do it right,” Snyder said.
Dow said the hope is to begin renovations to the second floor at 39 Forest Ave. on June 1, with the goal to be operational there by July 1. In a recent Health and Human Services Committee meeting she said the second floor, which would have security and a metal detector, will house programs like General Assistance. The first floor, which will include the Needle Exchange, would be fully utilized by November after renovations are complete. Administrative staff would move in over the summer.
Dow said these services have exhausted their potential to expand, and India Street has had problems with leaking pipes and flooding. India Street is 6,122 square feet, and Lancaster is 10,217 square feet; 39 Forest Ave. is 37,000 square feet.
Consolidation will also save the city some money, although not a considerable amount. The current rent for India and Lancaster streets is just over $280,000 while the rent at 39 Forest Ave. would be $277,500.
Culley, meanwhile, said the MECA residence next door will have a cafeteria, classrooms, and student space on the ground floor. He said work began on the plans in August 2020, and the hope is to break ground late this year and have the building ready for the fall 2023 semester.
MECA Vice President Beth Elicker told the council the college has “deep concerns” about having these services next door to the residence hall. She said the MECA building will mostly house women between 18 and 22, so the public safety risk is a great concern. Elicker later told the HHS committee that while there are benefits to the city’s consolidation plan, what the school is seeking is “a broader consideration” about location.
Some MECA students, however, later criticized Elicker’s position. A group of students launched an online petition in response to what they described as her “inappropriate and classist” comments to the City Council. The petition calls for a formal apology for those comments and “confirmation to either coexist with the city plans or change the location of the dormitory to protect the pending healthcare development.”
“The MECA students care about our community, the members and the healthcare offered for all,” the petition says. “We do not condone prioritizing student housing over social services that would benefit our lower-income communities greatly. We also do not condone claiming those that are house-less as a ‘safety risk’ to students.”
Dow said comments against the proposal made at the City Council meeting were inappropriate, and “criminalized” city social service clients. She said the notion that clients coming to the Forest Avenue building would be a threat to the MECA students “couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
Concerns were also expressed by another neighbor, Portland Stage Company at 25 Forest Ave., and by attorney Harold Pachios, whose family owns and plans to redevelop a nearby building on Forest Avenue. He told the HHS Committee this is a matter of real estate as much as it is a matter of social services, and said it would have a detrimental financial impact on his property.
Pachios also argued against the suggestion that opposing the city plan is equivalent to criminalizing those who use the services.
“I do believe in the dignity of these clients, I do want to help,” he said. “But I think it’s a real estate issue. No one has mentioned the issue of location, but that’s what land use is all about. This is downtown. I think we’re off on an issue of who respects people and who doesn’t, and that’s not what the issue is.”
Others with interests in the neighborhood, however, have fewer reservations.
C.J. Opperthauser, executive director of Friends of Congress Square Park, told the Phoenix he understood there was some public concern over the need for healthy dialogue. But from his organization’s perspective, he said, diversity in the Arts District is a good thing.
“We love how diverse our regular park-goers are, that’s one thing that makes it an interesting place to hang out and people watch,” Opperthauser said. “And a lot of the people that use our park regularly are those who would access the services (at 39 Forest Ave.)”
Councilors present at the HHS meeting generally supported the plan, although they expressed concerns about the expedited timeline.
Councilor Mark Dion, a committee member, urged staff to try and work with the Lancaster Street building owners to see if they could be flexible about the lease expiration and give the city more time. Dion also said he is concerned about the degree of outreach to abutters.
Dion also said he hopes the Police Department plays a role in “assessing what security looks like both internally and externally” at the consolidated service center.
Police Chief Frank Clark has toured the building with Dow and other city officials. However, the Police Department declined to provide further comment last week. Spokesman David Singer said the department does not comment on “a city ordinance proposal at this stage.”
Councilor Tae Chong, who chairs the HHS committee, said this was a “hasty process” on the city’s part, but he said that was balanced by the fact the city had been considering consolidation since the early 2000s and began actively looking for a new space in early 2020.
Ray, whose district includes the portion of Forest Avenue in question, said she wants to see the city conduct more outreach.