Roux developers were skeptical about B&M property in Portland

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In a meeting that sometimes became confrontational, with several dozen East Deering residents repeating concerns about the Roux Institute campus proposed for their neighborhood, developers acknowledged the former B&M Baked Beans property was not their first choice.

The first in-person meeting between the residents and the developers – the Falmouth-based nonprofit Initiative for Digital Engineering and Life Sciences and its partner Northeastern University – was held April 6 at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, a location some residents noted is not actually in their neighborhood.

B&M aerial view
An aerial image of the former B&M property in Portland and the surrounding East Deering neighborhood. Sherwood Street provides the only access to what could become the Roux Institute campus. (Courtesy Roux Institute)

The developers said Ocean Avenue was used because Presumpscot Elementary, the school closest to the neighborhood, is being renovated. They noted there were four prior remote meetings, only one of which was required by the city in the application process.

The Roux Institute was created in 2020 with a $100 million donation to Northeastern from IDEALS founders David and Barbara Roux, and now leases space in the Old Port. It provides graduate-level education in fields including artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics, life sciences, and project management.

In response to a question during the meeting, where many residents repeated concerns they have previously expressed about two facets of the proposed project – its impact on traffic and the size of several proposed buildings – IDEALS Executive Director Chuck Hewett said the 13.5-acre oceanfront property where B&M operated until late last year was the fifth choice for the campus.

He said unsuccessful offers were first made on three other properties, along with a tentative bid on a fourth. Hewett added that when Roux officials first walked the B&M property, they didn’t initially think it would be appropriate for a college campus.

Nonetheless, he said their hope is to break ground within 18 months, with the possibility some demolition could begin sooner.

One aspect several residents criticized is a proposed hotel that would likely be built in the first phase of construction. More than once, people in the audience spontaneously called out that they don’t want a hotel on the site.

“Get rid of the stuff we don’t want,” said Justin Litchfield, who addressed the developers. “We don’t need another hotel in Portland.”

Litchfield, who at times bordered on being antagonistic, accused the IDEALS representatives of “rushing” their applications and the project. He also claimed the project’s recently submitted Institutional Development Plan was missing key information.

“I want to see what you have,” he said. “I don’t think it will look like an appropriate transition.”

Others in the meeting were noticeably dissatisfied with responses to their questions about what the buildout of the site will look like and what the traffic implications will be.

Hewett and Chris Mallett, chief administrative officer for the Roux Institute, both said the long-term plan is to provide public transportation to the site, increase bicycle and pedestrian lanes, and make parking expensive enough to discourage people from driving to the institute, which will only be accessible to vehicles via Sherwood Street.

Hewett said they are also looking into how to prevent people from parking in the nearby Windsor Heights neighborhoods and then walking to the campus. Lodging on the campus is important, he and Mallett said, because it will reduce the number of trips in and out on Sherwood Street.

A representative for the developers said their traffic analysis will incorporate traffic impacts from a 48-unit development being built on Dalton Street and increased traffic from Presumpscot Street. The developers also said traffic during the first phase of the project will only be increased by 10 percent, although several in the audience said they doubted that claim.

Victoria Fisk, of Chester Street, said the plans for the site “go far beyond” what’s needed for a college campus, and said perhaps the developers are not being transparent about their plans or the impact this will have on traffic. She said she guessed most residents don’t believe the 10 percent claim.

“I suspect you have a backup plan we don’t know about,” she said.

Hewett said the developers have begun preliminary meetings with city planning staff, meaning the project is still very much in its infancy, so designs have not been finalized. As the project progresses, he said, he expects it to have at least three Planning Board workshops before moving on to a public hearing and eventual vote. From there, it would go to the City Council.

Hewett said IDEALS recognizes there will have to be compromises made to appease neighbors, but also said the neighbors will have to compromise, too, and accept there will be changes in the neighborhood.

“We don’t pretend we have all the answers,” he said. “We’re listening, we’re not going to be inflexible.”