The Portland Planning Board approved two six-unit apartment buildings to be built at 126 and 128R North Street last week, pictured above, despite objections from neighbors about, among other things, not enough room for emergency access to the rear of the property. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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After nearly eight months of workshops, the Portland Planning Board Sept.8 approved an updated proposal to build two six-unit apartment buildings on Munjoy Hill. 

At the same meeting, which lasted more than 4 1/2 hours, the board held a public hearing on a cold storage warehouse proposed for West Commercial Street.

Both applications drew opposition from neighbors and resulted in lengthy public comment periods.

Upright Properties LLC will build the apartments, which will include one three-story, six-unit residential building at 126 North St. and a four-story, six-unit condominium building at 128R North St., which abuts the Munjoy Heights Condominiums. The letter ‘R’ indicates the building is located on the rear lot of the address.

The new North Street apartments will comprise two buildings on a shared lot, with one housing owner-occupied condominiums and the other six apartments for rent. (Courtesy city of Portland)

The new apartments will include six parking spaces at the 128R address and two spaces at 126 North St. The plans also state the 128R building will contain condominiums, be owner-occupied, and include a first-floor workforce housing unit. The 126 North St. building will have six apartments for rent.

Last week’s workshop was the third discussing the development this year, previous meetings were in January, May, and July. Josh Wojcik, manager of Upright Properties, civil engineer Will Savage, and architect Tracie Reed attended the latest Zoom meeting.

Wojcik said he began making plans for the development in 2018, and after incorporating feedback from neighbors, city planning staff, and the Planning Board, the design is now “stronger.” In response to neighbor’s concerns, he said his team reduced the footprint of the 128R building and added measures to screen Munjoy Heights residents from parked vehicles. Developers also originally intended to construct the apartments on two separate parcels but decided to merge them into a single lot.

Following the developers’ presentation, several abutters spoke against the application. They cited numerous changes to the plans, lack of space on the lot to build the buildings, and lack of consideration for their concerns as primary issues.

Steve Kramer, owner of the front portion of 128 North St., also expressed concerns about the proposed right-of-way, or distance between North Street and the 128R building, not being big enough for access by emergency and construction vehicles. 

Michael Englert, a resident of 193 Sheridan St., called construction of the buildings on a single lot a “scheme” to get around city requirements that apartment buildings have street frontage. 

Consolidating the lots, he said, will still not provide direct access onto the public street that the city code mandates. 

In response to the concerns about emergency access, City Planner Shukria Wiar said as with any development, the Fire Department approved the plans, and 128R will not receive a certificate of occupancy until 16-foot fire access is built. 

Chair Brandon Mazer said almost all of the issues raised by neighbors are “beyond the scope” of the Planning Board, and that the project meets the standards within the board’s purview. 

Developers still must acquire a building permit, contingent on various administrative steps including submitting a subdivision plan and paying an affordable housing fee to the city. 

“I don’t think combining the lots has changed it significantly,” Mazer said. “The project is mostly the same, and we don’t get into the nitty-gritty of neighborly disputes. Otherwise, that’s all we would be doing.”

Cold storage 

The Sept. 8 meeting was the second workshop on the application for a cold storage building on the West Commercial Street waterfront.

Last month the proposal elicited a letter to the Planning Board from more than 80 residents who claim the 107,000-square-foot structure would be too large for its location and should not be considered a marine use as required by zoning. 

Treadwell Franklin Infrastructure of Yarmouth is leading the development, which would be built on state-owned land next to the International Marine Terminal.

Project Manager Jedd Steinglass and civil engineer Darrin Stairs, both of Woodard & Curran, also discussed changes to the site plan, which include changing pavement and landscaping. Diane Morabito, vice president of traffic engineering at James Seawall Co., explained the findings of a traffic study conducted at the site.

The Planning Board discussed the potential traffic impact of a cold storage facility proposed for the West Commercial Street waterfront last week. A recent traffic study deemed the intersection of West Commercial, Beach Street and the site’s driveway a “high-crash location.” (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

City Planner Christian Roadman said the intersection of West Commercial Street and Beach Street, which includes the proposed driveway, has been classified a “high-crash location” with a fair amount of traffic congestion. 

While the proposed project will add trips to the area, the city’s consulting traffic engineer, Thomas Errico of T.Y. Lin International, said it will not have “a significant impact” on the intersection’s existing conditions.

Errico also recommended the installation of an adaptive traffic control device and an illuminated yield sign at the intersection to increase bike and pedestrian safety. The facility will also have a limit of 10 employees working during its two daytime shifts, and five employees overnight to cut back on cars in the area.

Truck deliveries will also be scheduled, Roadman said, to “minimize impact” on the surrounding area.

The traffic study analyzed the number of trips the project will generate for the year 2022. Morabito said her team wanted to represent the “worst-case” traffic scenario when making estimates.

During morning peak traffic hours, the study estimated the building would generate 39 one-way trips, or 23 trips into the facility and 16 out. During the evening peak hours, the study estimated 22 trips would occur, with eight into the facility and 14 out.

Public comment included several concerns about the location of the proposed facility, traffic and environmental impact, and visibility of the waterfront.

Jo Coyne of 36 Salem St. said the letter submitted last month by residents offered “strong, reliable data” which she felt developers “pretty much dismissed” in press coverage of the issue.

“Our maritime needs can be met with a much smaller facility,” she said. “Neighbors don’t mind a facility there, but it doesn’t need to be so huge, and because it’s so huge it’s creating all of the problems.”

Conversely, Phineas Sprague, president of Portland Yacht Services on West Commercial Street, spoke in favor of the development and called it “a massive deal for Maine and Portland.” 

Board member Robert Dunfey raised concerns about the traffic study being modeled for 2022, noting the facility will likely not be operating at capacity until 2025 or 2026.

“I’m not comfortable that those are the maximum number of truck trips, and West Commercial is going to have so much pressure with traffic in the next coming years,” he said. 

Board member Austin Smith also suggested doubling the number of trees on the property, since the city is being asked to grant waivers for an extra-large driveway to accommodate trucks. 

Board members also discussed reducing the number of proposed employee parking spaces.

Mazer suggested coming up with a more creative design for the building instead of it resembling “a blank wall.”

“It is what it is,” Mazer said, “but we can make it feel like Portland.”

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