Portland developer proposes Forest Ave. apartments after college scraps dorm plan

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Plans for a 180-student Maine College of Art & Design residence hall on Forest Avenue have been canceled but the developer now hopes to turn the existing building into apartments.

Meanwhile, the city’s plan to renovate the building next door for its Health and Human Services department – including the Needle Exchange Program, HIV/STD testing, and General Assistance – is behind schedule.

39 Forest Ave.
Portland is leasing the two-story building at 39 Forest Ave. for its Health and Human Services Department. Maine College of Art & Design had planned to renovate the building next door as a residence hall but has decided not to proceed. Instead, Redfern Properties now wants to turn the former telephone company building into apartments. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

The city had hoped to have some work done at 39 Forest Ave. by July, because its lease on Lancaster Street, where GA has been based, was expiring. City spokesperson Jessica Grondin blamed the delay on contractor scheduling issues.

Grondin said the city plans to hold a remote community meeting and question-and-answer session to provide an update about the project in the next few weeks, but a date has not been set.

She said the Lancaster Street lease has been extended, and a lease on India Street – where the needle exchange program is based – doesn’t expire until the end of the year.  

The city’s announcement about the HHS building took MECA&D officials, and owners of other properties and businesses near the block between Congress Street and Cumberland Avenue, by surprise. College officials expressed concern about the safety of students who would be living there, the vast majority of whom would be women, although students pushed back against the characterization that they would not be safe simply because of the clientele who would frequent the HHS building.

The residence hall project was a joint venture between MECA&D and the Redfern Properties development firm. Redfern owner Jonathan Culley on Friday said the college decided “for a variety of reasons” not to pursue the dorm at this location.

“They are a valued partner and an important cultural institution for the city,” Culley said, adding that in the end, MECA&D decided this location “wasn’t what they were looking for.”

Culley said Redfern is seeking site plan approval from the Planning Board for 81 apartments in the building at 45 Forest Ave. He said there will be 51 studio apartments and 30 one-bedroom units. The studios will be between 400 and 450 square feet and will cost around $1,200-$1,300 a month, and the one-bedroom apartments will be between 550 and 650 square feet and cost $1,700 to $1,800 per month.

“There’s a huge need for housing right now,” Culley said. “We’re looking for every opportunity for new housing.”

Culley, who recently discussed the lack of availability of housing for middle-income earners with the City Council’s Housing and Economic Development Committee, said the apartments will target people who earn between 80 and 100 percent of the area median income. He said it would not be low-income housing but will be “an important addition to the housing stock.”

“It’s the best we can do in providing new housing stock that’s affordable to some people,” Culley said.

He said his hope is to have a Planning Board workshop in October and swift site plan approval since Redfern is proposing interior renovations, not new construction or additions.

“Our goal is to begin those renovations in January of 2022 and have an 18-month construction period,” Culley said.