Portland Planning Board backs zone change for outer Congress Street

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The city’s willingness to grant zoning changes was evident last week when the Planning Board recommended the City Council change a zone on outer Congress Street to allow a medical marijuana business.

The board’s Dec. 15 decision for the corridor that includes the property at 1217 Congress St., home of Tony’s Donuts, will go before the council early in 2021.

The Board also recommended a handful of text and map amendments for a proposal to rezone part of State Street so that Mercy Hospital can be redeveloped for more than 400 units of housing and some commercial activities.

A vacant former gas station on Congress Street in Portland, near Tony’s Donuts, could become home to a medical marijuana business if the city rezones the area for business development. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

The Congress Street property is zoned now as a B1 district, which encourages smaller commercial uses in a generally mixed-use neighborhood. The proposal calls for a switch to B2, which city staff explained allows a wider range of uses, including medical and recreational marijuana sales.

Donna Larson, of Sebago Technics, representing the applicants, said the application is for the vacant gas station at the front of the property, which is owned by Tony’s Donuts. She said the owner has tried to lease the space for five years but has had no luck because of the B1 restrictions, and the only interested potential tenant – Forest City Organics – requires the zone change.

Rather than recommend the single parcel be rezoned, the request is to rezone a larger section of outer Congress Street, which is a four-lane road with access to Interstate 295 and more residential uses than sections of the street towards the Old Port. The opposite side of the street also includes a functioning gas station and the businesses at Thompson’s Point, which are already in a B2 zone.

City Planner Andrew Tufts said B2 zones are typical in corridors with commercial activity, such as Forest Avenue. This site is bordered by residential zones to the east, west, and north. The B1 district allows for smaller scale, neighborhood-oriented commercial developments that wouldn’t disrupt the adjoining neighborhood, he said, and the total proposal includes 10 parcels for rezoning, including the nearby Anania’s sandwich shop.

Larson said Forest City Organics isn’t a recreational marijuana business, so an average person can’t just walk in. The customers would have to have medical cards, she said, so there would be less traffic at the property.

“The B2 allows more flexibility, it gives more options, that’s what we need to get this property active once again,” she said.

Larson hedged when asked during the meeting by a member of the public if the zoning change was only being requested to benefit a marijuana company. She said while that was “not exactly” the driving factor, she did concede the most interested potential tenant has been Forest City Organics.

“That is the primary use,” Larson said. “But the owner of the property has talked to different potential tenants since it’s been vacant, but they haven’t been able to get anyone because the zoning is so restrictive.”

Board members unanimously approved sending the recommendation to the council.

State Street

The board held a previous workshop on the Mercy Hospital plan; the Dec. 15 meeting was just on the various amendments, including height allowances and future construction.

The application, from NewHeight Redfern LLC, is a joint project from two local development firms. The companies have requested a zoning change from the current R6 zone to a B3 zone, which allows a greater variety of commercial uses. It would also connect State Street to an existing B3 zone in Longfellow Square.

The council will take up these amendments in 2021, while the Planning Board still has to vote on a site plan for the project.