Questions remain for Planning Board on Roux campus proposals

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Portland Planning Board members last week reiterated some of their past concerns about the application for the Roux Institute campus, specifically the long-term ownership of the property.

In the Aug. 9 workshop, Board Member David Silk said he still found it “odd” that the proposal is coming from a nonprofit developer – the Falmouth-based Initiative for Digital Engineering and Life Sciences – and not Northeastern University, the institution that will eventually own the former B&M Baked Beans property.

Roux overview
An overview of the proposed Roux Institute campus in East Deering, with hotel and residential buildings closest to Interstate 295. (Courtesy Roux Institute)

“I’m scratching my head why it’s not simply Northeastern or the Roux Institute at Northeastern applying here,” Silk said.

Vice Chair Brandon Mazer also wondered earlier in the meeting whether the institutional development plan sought for the project should be tied to Northeastern rather than IDEALS. A lawyer for IDEALS said that would be an edit they could make next time the proposal is in a workshop.

The institutional overlay zone, or IOZ, would create a special zone or district over an existing one. Especially since Northeastern probably has its own development office and officers, Silk said the proposal seemed irregular. But he also said he didn’t want to second guess Planning Department staff if they are comfortable with it.

“Maybe I’m just locked into a paradigm that doesn’t need to be a paradigm,” Silk said.

The proposal would have the property become part of the B5 zone, which staff said allows more modern, mixed uses than the underlying industrial area.

Christine Grimando, the city’s director of planning and urban development, said staff grew more comfortable with the  proposal after several conversations with the applicants.

“From the city’s perspective,” she said, “we’re open to hearing a new paradigm.”

Part of the conversation was tied to the site’s less-than-certain future.

While IDEALS Executive Director Chuck Hewett said a memorandum of understanding commits the nonprofit to granting a ground lease to Northeastern – which is also committed to accepting it – and commits IDEALS to eventually transferring the property to Northeastern, some board members previously expressed concerns over what would happen if Northeastern dropped out and IDEALS wasn’t able to find a replacement university.  

“We’re working to achieve exactly what Northeastern wants to achieve,” Hewett said.

If Northeastern pulls out and is replaced by another institution, Deputy Director of Planning and Urban Development Kevin Kraft said, a new text amendment would be required. If no institution acceptable to the city were found, he said, anything built would have to fit within the B5 zone; otherwise, the buildings would be considered nonconforming.

He said institutions are encouraged by the city to have an IOZ because it is a tool for future development that puts a greater burden on the institutions.

Kraft also said while it’s not within the purview of city planning staff, educational institutions have access to some tax-exempt status. That means any revenue-producing aspect  – such as a planned hotel – would have to be reevaluated.

Board Member Marpheen Chann expressed some concerns that the nonprofit status could be “operating as a pass-through entity for commercial activities to happen.”

Grimando said while she understood the tax-exempt discussion is a “compelling topic,” site planning and zoning don’t have that as a criterion for review or decisions.

The proposal must still return for additional discussions, including on traffic impacts, before the board makes a decision.

Herald Square, 385 Congress St., Portland rendering
A rendering of the nearly $300 million Herald Square project proposed for 385 Congress St. in downtown Portland. (Courtesy Reger Dasco Properties)

Board OKs master plan for Congress St. hotel-condos

The Portland Planning Board on Aug. 9 unanimously approved the next step in a large hotel-and-condominium development on Congress Street next to City Hall.

The Herald Square project at 385 Congress St. would have nearly 300 condominiums, a 156-room hotel, more than 12,000 square feet of retail space, a public park, and more than 330 parking spaces on the former site of the Portland Press Herald newspaper printing plant. It is expected to cost between $200 million and $300 million and would occupy an entire block between Congress Street, Cumberland Avenue, Pearl Street, and Myrtle Street.

Planners approved the master development plan 5-0, with Chair Maggie Stanley and Board member Austin Smith absent.

Portland firm Reger Dasco Properties will develop the condos, while Fathom Cos. will develop the hotel. Fathom also manages the Press Hotel, which is across the street.

The first two phases will include constructing a condo tower, the hotel, and structured parking; the third phase will include a second condo tower and additional parking.

In addition to the master development plan, each phase of the project will require separate approvals.

— Colin Ellis