Portland councilors will negotiate an agreement for more than 100 housing units at the site of the old West School.
BY MICHAEL KELLEY THE FORECASTER
A development team of Szanton Company and Maine Cooperative Development Partners proposes a 108-unit housing development for land the city now owns at 43 and 92 Douglass St.
PORTLAND — A divided City Council decided Monday to pursue selling the former site of West School on Douglass Street to a developer who plans to build a four-story, 56-unit apartment building and 52 co-units in several buildings on the property.
The Douglass Commons development would be a mix of affordable, workforce and market rate housing. The co-op part of the project would give those tenants a financial stake in ownership, even though they would not own their units.
The council will approve a final sales agreement with developer Szanton Company/Maine Cooperative Development Partners, which has offered $475,000 for the property, at a later date. A zoning change is needed before the project would be ready for Planning Board review.
Reaching a decision on a project was not easy.
This summer, the council’s Housing Committee and its Economic Development committee agreed that the city-owned land on Douglass Street was a prime spot for a housing development, but they disagreed on which of two proposed developments they preferred.
The Housing Committee favored the Douglass Commons project. The Economic Development Committee, however, voted in August in favor of a plan from Jack Soley, Avesta Housing and Hebert Construction. The Douglass Yards proposal included a 40-unit apartment building, a 30-unit condominium building and 10 single-family homes. The single-family houses would have room to add on an apartment if the owners wanted to do that.
The council was equally divided Monday, with Jill Duson, Kimberly Cook, Pious Ali, Belinda Ray and Tae Chong supporting Douglass Commons, and Councilors Nick Mavodones, Spencer Thibodeau, Justin Costa and Mayor Kate Snyder favoring Douglass Yards.
Councilor Tae Chong said he favored the Douglass Commons proposal because it could be more appealing for families, who would be attracted to living close to the city skate park, the Douglass Street athletic fields and Kiwanis Pool.
Chong, whose district includes the site, said he preferred the Douglass Commons proposal, which could bring in as many as 186 children to Portland Public Schools, because it is more family friendly. The property is close to the Douglass athletic fields, city skate park and Kiwanis Pool.
“For me it is about pioneering affordable, stable housing for families,” Chong said.
Councilor Belinda Ray said the Douglass Commons project will better provide housing for those earning between 60% and 120% of the area median income, which is $70,630 for an individual and $100,900 for a family of four.
“I see that proposal addressing our needs much better,” she said.
The Libbytown Neighborhood Association favored the Douglass Commons plan and neighbors Monday spoke in favor of it.
Jon Bradstreet, who has owned 73-75 Douglass St. since 2007, said while he had concerns about the size and scope of both projects, he backed the Douglass Commons proposal “due to conformity to the current neighborhood look” and the green space that separates the project site from existing houses.
Another Douglass Street resident, Charles O’Rourke, said the team behind the Douglass Commons proposal has “earned his confidence” because they have met with neighbors and made “meaningful adjustments based on community feedback.”
But Ali Malone of Craigie Street said she supported the Douglass Yards project because of the potential for the single-family homes to be able to expand, something she hopes other developers will take note of.
“This is an exciting model for the city that will create extra housing and give flexibility to families to grow into or out of units of varying size,” she said.
Jonathan Culley, owner of Redfern Properties and vice chairperson of the Avesta Board of Directors, argued that the Douglass Yards project makes more sense for the city because it is expected to generate $9.3 million more in tax revenue over a 30-year period and offered $100,000 more for the land.
Georges Budagu Makoko, publisher of the Amjambo Africa newspaper, said Avesta has had a long history providing housing for those who are new to the country.
“There are so many in the immigrant community that need affordable housing,” he said. “Avesta Housing has been providing that for them. I don’t know anyone that does a better job.”
Mavodones said the Douglass Yards proposal makes more financial sense for the city. Snyder said she favored it because it could be constructed faster and is not requesting money from the city’s Housing Fund, which supports the construction of affordable housing in the city.
“I keep coming back to this sense of urgency. I want to see the housing built as quickly as possible. I think we have a real sense of urgency here in the city of Portland,” she said.
While both projects had a final completion goal of summer 2023, the Douglass Yards project anticipated starting construction in 2021 and having the single-family homes and condos completed in spring 2022, around the time the Douglass Commons project was slated to start.
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