Planning Board delays final approval of Midtown

A rendering of the six-story version of Midtown approved by the Planning Board.

A rendering of the six-story version of Midtown reviewed by the Planning Board.

In a surprise move, the Portland Planning Board Tuesday (3/3/2015) delayed a final vote on Midtown, the largest project in decades in the Bayside neighborhood.

In doing so, the Planning Board did what opponents of the project Portland residents had asked them to do for the first version of the massive Midtown project—Board members required the project to do more to meet some city zoning standards.

Instead of complaining about the project’s shortcomings and then approving it as they did for Midtown’s first, 14-story version, board members voted unanimously to require the developer, the Federated Companies, to change the design of the largest six-story building’s façade and roofline and then return for final board approval.

During the five-hour hearing, one board member, Jack Soley, even challenged the basis of one of the developer’s requested waivers. In the voting on the project’s original version, no board member questioned the lack of justifications for any of the requested waivers.

We of Keep Portland Livable can take considerable credit for this turn of events. Without our legal suit to overturn the Board’s initial approvals, the board would have had no opportunity to stand up for these standards.

Thus, our grassroots movement not only galvanized city-wide opposition; our legal appeal not only brought the developer and the City to the negotiating table; but our actions gave the Planning Board a second chance to stand up for the rules it was charged with enforcing.
The Board had been expected to approve the current version of the project that had been scaled down to three six-story buildings and a single parking garage to meet the objections of the public and a suit brought by us at Keep Portland Livable. KPL agreed not to oppose this version of the project as a whole, and to allow the Planning Board to apply the standards that it had failed to apply to the project’s first version.

Now it has done so. Planning Board members questioned

  • the developer’s proposed use of EIFS, a synthetic building material over much of the three apartment buildings’ surfaces.
  • The lack of a dedicated passageway in the middle of the block between Chestnut and Elm Streets.
  • The lack of a complete, final set of architectural renderings of the buildings’ facades.

Board members decided 5-1, with Chair Stuart O’Brien opposed, that the developer, The Federated Companies of Miami, Fla., had not created an appropriate façade or roofline for the 430-foot long apartment and retail building between Chestnut Street and Elm Street. The Board also requires the developer to remove the rigid foam material from the first floor exterior of the building proposed behind Trader Joe’s. The Board required the developer to alter those features, create drawings depicting the changes, and return for final board approval.

If finally approved, the project will extend along Somerset Street from behind Trader Joe’s to Pearl Street across from Whole Food’s parking lot.

Keep Portland Livable formed and sued the city after the Planning Board approved the original project that included four 14-story towers and two massive parking garages despite widespread public opposition. The lawsuit still pending in Superior Court contended that the Board failed to uphold the neighborhood’s Bayside Vision and city ordinances that limit building heights, require passageways in the middle of blocks, and set needs’ tests for waivers.

After initial court hearings in the law suit brought by Bayside residents and property owners, the developer, Jonathan Cox of the Federated Companies, offered to redesign the project.

The reconfigured project eliminated one parking garage and lowered the remaining buildings to six stories. Keep Portland Livable agreed to allow Federated to bring the new plan to the Planning Board without the group’s opposition. This new plan is the one the Planning Board is reviewing.

The original design would have assured construction of only 175 apartments in a first-phase tower and a massive parking garage. Since taxpayer subsidies in excess of $9 million would have been totally spent on that first phase, there was no assurance other apartments would be built quickly, or at all.

In a side agreement with Keep Portland Livable, the City has agreed in coming months to review applicable standards for similarly large projects. Keep Portland Livable also contends that the city needs to adopt a Sea Level Rise plan before permitting further residential developments in areas like the Bayside flats that annual high tides are already flooding.




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