A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bayside update

The City Council's Community Development Committee heard from the four developers proposing to build out the city-owned railroad land in Bayside last night. I'd previously written about the proposals here, and here's an updated map showing where the various developers are proposing to put their buildings:

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Common to all of these proposals is a 705 space parking garage that the city has already permitted and towards which the city will commit a $9 million HUD loan. So as in the Eastern Waterfront, another huge garage (in addition to two under construction on Marginal Way right now) will be the first structure to dominate the skyline in this supposed "transit-oriented" neighborhood - at a significant expense to taxpayers. The garage is actually expected to cost $14 million to build, which means that the developers and their predominantly nonprofit tenants will have to pay the $5 million difference themselves. It's a hefty car storage tax that will hamper the desired development and worsen traffic problems, and the City really ought to reduce it or get rid of it altogether.

In no particular order, let's first look at the proposal from MaineHealth (the nonprofit* owner of the Maine Medical Center) and United Way to build a 5 (or 8) story office building on the west side of Chestnut Street and the big garage next door (outlined in yellow in the map above). Here's a very basic conceptual plan they brought to last night's meeting:

The orange hulk on the left is the garage. Hey, Portland City Council: want to make a $5 million donation to United Way? Shrink the size of the garage by 1/3 so it only costs us $9 million to build.

Next up is the 8-story building proposed by The Olympia Companies (outlined in blue). The anchor tenant would be the nonprofit Community Counseling Center. Olympia had submitted three variations on this same building, located on different lots in each proposal, but they seem to be converging on the proposal for an office building on the east side of Chestnut Street, so as not to step on the toes of the MaineHealth and Waterman proposals. Click on the blue marker in the map above for an architectural rendering of this proposal:

Waterman Housing is proposing a mixed-income, nine-story housing building with first-floor offices and retail on the corner of Somerset and the to-be-constructed Pearl Street Extension. It includes a surface parking lot along the planned Bayside Trail, but other than that boner, it looks like a handsome plan, and a bit more interesting than the bland brick boxes going up elsewhere in the neighborhood:

The Olympia Companies also put together this rendering, which shows how the neighborhood might look if the three previous proposals were built in concert:

Finally, Richard Berman of the Developers Collaborative produced this proposal for the entire parcel:

Berman's proposal seemed the most financially viable, since he's offering cash without financing for the land and won't depend on competitive tax credits for the construction. He's also got a pretty solid track record in infill development, having built the Chestnut St. Lofts up the hill from this site and the less-successful Brickhill in South Portland. Unlike most developers of his generation, Berman has a strong personal interest in seeing urban neighborhoods thrive and succeed. This proposal, too, leaves room for collaboration with other developers: it includes a spot on Somerset Street for MaineHealth/United Way's proposed office building, and it would also include the Community Counseling Center as an anchor office tenant.

Another important tenant would be the University of Southern Maine, with a proposed graduate school campus on the east end of the site. The Law School would move in first, on the corner of Chestnut and Somerset Streets, and the Business and Muskie Schools could follow later on the adjacent truck-storage lot between Somerset and Kennebec Streets. Universities are huge generators of economic activity, so establishing a graduate campus here (instead of on the other side of the I-295 moat) could be a huge catalyst for more infill development. Offices for Fairpoint in a flatiron building on Elm Street would round out this proposal.

Having looked these over, I think that the Developers Collaborative proposal is most promising, both because of their solid financial footing and because of their track record as advocates for mixed-use, quality urbanism. But I also like the Waterman proposal, the mixed-use program of which really addresses the themes of the community's Bayside plan. If I had my druthers, I guess I'd have the city sell most of the site to Berman, shrink the parking garage requirement to 450 spaces for the time being (we can build more later, if we really need it, but saddling any of these developers with a $5 million car storage fee, and burdening the nascent neighborhood with hundreds of additional cars, amounts to a really bad idea) and reserve the corner lot of Somerset and Pearl for the good-looking, mixed-income Waterman housing proposal.

The CDC put off its vote to recommend a plan of action to the full City Council until its next meeting in March. Members of this year's Community Development Committee are its chair, Councilor Cheryl Leeman, Councilor John Anton, and Councilor Nick Mavodones.

*Is a health care company really "nonprofit" when our health insurance premiums are paying for the seven-figure salary and chauffeured black SUV of that company's CEO? Good question, but not on topic for this blog, unfortunately.

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