The former Williston-West Church sits in the midst of the West End of Portland. It’s a proud conclave known for its affluence and tranquility, rather than for its “diversity.” For some, finding a way to retain the neighborhood’s refinement and keep out more traffic and noise is a passion. The historic church has recently become the focus of a controversy that has pitted neighbor against neighbor in the West End.
Dr. Frank Monsour, a surgeon from Australia who has diversified into a technology company, recently bought the Church. It was built in 1877 by local architect Francis Fassett. (In 1905, the Parish Hall was added by another notable Portland architect John Calvin Stevens, following a fire in the building which he helped clean-up, according to his great grandson, architect Paul Stevens, who supports the zone change.) Attorney Mary Costigan, Bernstein Shur, filed a request for zoning change for her client earlier this month. Approval of the zone change would permit Monsour to establish office space for his start-up company, build a substantial home for his family and a caretaker’s unit all in the Parish wing. He’d turn the sanctuary into a performance center; a move at the core of the controversy because of the already parking challenged community.
Eleven people testified in opposiion to the zone change and nine in favor of it in a workshop session that lasted three hours. Most of those who testified are residents living across or behind the church. The overwhelming number of neighbors do not have off-street parking depending on alternate day parking on city streets.
Planning board member David Silk told consultants Matthew Winch, John Turk and Costigan: “This is not an easy one, even though everyone wants to preserve it. I’m having a hard time seeing that this should be rezoned. Is there significant economic opportunity to make this change? Is this zoning achange consistent with the comprehensive plan? Joe Lewis said: “I’m really sensitive to the integrity of this neighborhood. It’s already had to deal with Waynfleet Creep. It’s great to repurpose the church.” Then shifting into high gear, he said: “I’ve had it with contract zones. The city council is trying to discourage us from supporting them. I’m looking for a parking plan. This was not a good one.” Bill Hall said: “The comprehensive plan is always in the eye of the beholder. You need to make a case for why the comprehensive plan says this is a good idea. He concurred the parking managenet plan was vague.
Costigan said that the applicant will notify the planning board when it wants to hold another workshop before going to public comment. Eventually it will go to the city council for its final decision on the zoning change.
Costigan also acknowledge that if the zoning change is not approved, Monsour has indicated interest in selling the property.