Planning Board Delays Vote on Midtown’s Phase 1 ’til January



Steve Hirshon:  "I look forward to 200 new neighbors."

Steve Hirshon: “I look forward to 200 new neighbors.”

By Carol McCracken  (Post # 1,653)

Late this evening, the Portland Planning Board decided to postpone a vote on the proposed plan for a large-scale housing project in Bayside  until a later date; likely January 14, 2013.  During a break taken  just before 9:30 pm., the board decided to postpone the vote on the Midtown Phase 1 project because several board members live on Peaks Island and needed to leave to catch the ferry well before the board could have finished its complicated deliberations and arrived at a vote. The two board members living on Peaks are Bill Hall and Jack Soley.  The delay was an anti-climax for many because of the intense interest the controversial project had engendered in the Greater Portland area; many in the packed city council chambers had already left by the time the delay was announced by Chair Carol Morrisette.

Leading the opponents of the controversial Midtown development are Peter Monro and Tim Paradis, who with their attorney Sandra Guay pressured the board to delay its decision for a few months until more information can be gathered.  Monro requested six changes to the project; including a digital model of all phases, reducing the building’s heights and a requirement that all sidewalks be 12 ft. wide. He also asked for more wind studies than the development team presented to the board.  Guay, of Woodman Edmands Danylik Austin Smith & Jacques, a Biddeford law firm, told the board that Midtown does not comply with the Comprehensive Plan.  “Some may wish that the Comprehensive Plan were changed, but it hasn’t been.  It is what it is,” she said.  Guay has left a significant paper trail of demands with the city about the proposed development. Tim Paradis presented a petition with 335 signatures on it requesting that the board reconsider the project. Chris Shorr, former city council candidate said:  “This would encouage people with money from out of town to move here. This type of housing is different from what we need.  We need more focus on small projects.” Close to 50 people testified on the matter, the overwhelming majority in opposition to the development.

David Hancock, the Boston-based architect for the development, said wind studies show that “Portland is not a very windy city.  Boston has higher wind speeds. Pedestrian winds will be reduced by perforations in the garage wall.  No dangerous wind conditions are expected in this area,” he persisted in an effort to assuage the concerns of Keep Portland Livable members.

In support of Midtown, Steve Hirshon, a resident of Bayside, said:  “I’m looking forward to 200 new neighbors in Bayside.  I’m tired of being talked at by people living in other neighborhoods,” Hirshon said. He is president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, but the group decided not to take an official  stance because of the controversy involved.  Tom Blackburn, a Bayside resident, testified in favor of the development:  “More density is needed in Bayside.  We need more housing stock as well.  This will enhance the Trail and help eliminate some of the bad behavior happening on the Trail.” Blackburn is the administrator for Creative Space, an arm of Creative Portland.  (The City has expressed concern in the past at the lack of use of the Bayside Trail; hoping that this proposed development would attract more users.) Attorney Patrick Venne, a former Portland Planning Board Member, cautioned it in a January letter cautioned “that it does not follow in the footsteps of other large-scale projets and become a series of squat high-rises that abut even squatter parking garages.” He told the board it is “not bound by the Comprehensive Plan. There are lots of subjective calls being made here tonight.”

Maine State Senate President Justin L. Alfond wrote a December 9th  letter to the planning board in support of the development. Alfond said the Midtown project will add much-needed housing and additional retail space to the former industrial area. …the Midtown project sends a strong message to the state and rest of the country – Portland is both pro-business and pro-community process.”  Alfond is a Hill resident.

On several occasions has requested information determining on what  basis the group might mount a lawsuit should the planning board approve Midtown.  “That is the big question,” said Paradis recently over the telephone.   “We are just trying to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s,” he said.  Then was referred to the “bad precedent” section of KeepPortlandLivable. To date no more information has been forthcoming on the subject, although the possibility of suing the city has been mentioned by the group.