Debate rages on new South Portland zone

SOUTH PORTLAND- The far west end of Main Street in South Portland is experiencing urban decay, but it’s also one of the major gateways into the city, which is one reason a majority on the City Council is eager to see new zoning rules go through that could lead to reinvestment and new development in the area.

However, a second new zone proposed for the Thornton Heights neighborhood section of Westbrook and Main streets has caused concern that inappropriate development could go on a city-owned lot next door to the Congregation Bet Ha’am synagogue.

Following a lengthy workshop on Monday, during which the City Council heard more than two hours of public comment, councilors agreed to move forward the new Main Street Community Commercial zone and the new Thornton Heights Commercial zone as separate items for consideration at its meeting at 7 p.m. on May 5.

While not specifically related to a proposal for a new Dunkin’ Donuts shop in that area of South Portland, debate regarding the two new zoning measures has been complicated by the project.

In December, Cafua Management, based in Massachusetts, purchased the former St. John the Evangelist Church on the corner of Thirlmere Avenue and Main Street and announced plans to tear down the historic structure and replace it with a 24-hour Dunkin’ Donuts.

After much neighborhood opposition, the development company backed off that plan and instead began talking with the city about building its new shop on the corner of Westbrook and Main streets, which is a municipally owned lot that’s never been developed.

Under the new Main Street zone being proposed, which includes the St. John site, drive-throughs and 24-hour restaurants would not be allowed. But the new Thornton Heights Commercial zone, which is designed to be automobile friendly, according to City Planner Tex Haeuser, would.

That’s one reason the synagogue, which has won national recognition for the design of its 2009 addition, is so concerned and has stated its opposition to the proposed Thornton Heights zone both before the Planning Board last week and the City Council on Monday.

In a letter sent to supporters of the synagogue, Rabbi Jared Saks and Lisa Munderback, president of the board of directors, asked people to turn out at Monday’s City Council workshop to speak against the new zoning, which could also potentially allow a six-story building to be constructed next to the synagogue.

In addition, many who spoke on Monday also said they did not want to see development of any kind on the city-owned corner lot, arguing that green space, especially on that end of South Portland, is a much-needed and valued asset.

During its meeting on April 22, the Planning Board approved both the new Main Street and Thornton Heights zones in a vote of 4 to 1, according to City Manager Jim Gailey. He also said the city’s Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee has reviewed the new zoning proposals and had no objections.

At Monday’s workshop, Haeuser said the goal of the two new zones is to protect the existing neighborhoods while also growing the city’s economic base. In addition, he said that as part of the comprehensive plan process, these two areas of the city have been designated as growth areas.

Haeuser said the purpose of the new Main Street zone is to encourage service center-type development, from small, locally owned businesses to banks and maybe even a grocery store that residents could easily walk or bike to. The goal of the new Thornton Heights zone, he said, is to make it into more of a commercial hub.

“We’re also trying to reverse some of the negative trends in this area of the city,” Haeuser said.

The Main Street zone, for instance would ban pawnshops and check-cashing operations, and under both zones design standards would be implemented for new development.

And, he said, the new Dunkin’ Donuts would make more sense on the city-owned lot at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets than it would in the residential neighborhood surrounding the former St. John Church.

A number of residents who would fall under the new Main Street zone echoed that sentiment, but supporters of the synagogue and others argued that the city-owned lot is also not an appropriate spot for a 24-hour, drive-through operation.

In her comments to the council, Munderback said the synagogue was specially oriented to receive sunlight all year long and while she understands the desire of residents abutting the St. John Church property not to have a Dunkin’ Donuts next door, she doesn’t think it belongs next door to the Congregation Bet Ha’am either. (There is already a Dunkin’ Donuts close by, however.)

“I am opposed to this zoning,” she said of the proposed Thornton Heights Commercial district. “It’s essentially out of character and would eliminate green space. I also don’t want to see a six-story building that could put (our building) in shadow.”

Rob Schreiber, who is both a member of the Planning Board and the committee working to implement the comprehensive plan, said the city has had success with similar zones in other neighborhoods and he supports the zoning measures because they reduce sprawl and meet the demands of a younger workforce to live in mixed use areas.

In all, Schreiber said, the new zones are not about the Dunkin’ Donuts project or the synagogue, but about working together to create “a more vibrant South Portland.”

But Jane Slovan, a member of Congregation Bet Ha’am, said allowing any development on the corner lot adjacent to the synagogue would “have a seriously detrimental effect on what we’ve created and would really affect the quality of our worship.”

She added, “I understand that there are competing interests and these are complex issues, but what is so important about accommodating a (Dunkin’ Donuts)?”

Former South Portland Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis, who is running as the Democrat candidate for the District 33 state representative seat, said allowing a 24-hour Dunkin’ Donuts to go up next to the synagogue would “not be a positive zone change for our city. This would never happen in Knightville, and it should not happen here.”

Craig Gorris, who is a member of the city’s Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee, as well as the manager of the Maine Mall, said, “What I’m interested in is long-term vitality and livability.”

And, he said, “I feel the work we are doing will have positive long-term effects. I see a walkable Main Street anchored by businesses serving the neighbors.”

That view was shared by Taylor Hamlin, who said the new Main Street zone, in particular, “promotes reasonable and scaled development that’s consistent with how residents live and use (the area). The crux of the issue is how do we want to see this area grow and develop.”

When it came time for the City Council to talk about the proposed new zones, a majority was clearly in support of moving the Main Street changes forward. However, several councilors also questioned the impact of the proposed Thornton Heights Commercial zone.

Councilor Michael Pock called the Thornton Heights zone “a mess” and said he would like to see it go back to the drawing board. And Councilor Linda Cohen called whether to support the two new zones “a really, really difficult decision.”

Councilor Tom Blake said that while the debate regarding the two new zones has turned into a “drive-through issue, this is really a global issue, and we cannot let a drive-through impact our global thinking.”

That said, Blake also said he would prefer to see the Thornton Heights zone “put on hold at a minimum.”

Councilor Patti Smith said, “There is no easy answer.”

She’s supportive of the Main Street zoning changes and said, “I have high hopes for development.”

However, she added, “I am having a hard time understanding how (the Thornton Heights zone) benefits us. I don’t think it’s in the best interests of the city.”

Mayor Gerard Jalbert is also supportive of the new Main Street zone, calling that end of the city “horrendous” and “a slum.” But, he also said, “I don’t want to see (the synagogue) negatively impacted.”

Councilor Maxine Beecher pointed out that the City Council will get two more opportunities to discuss the proposed new zones and make changes, if necessary, before the final reading later this month.

The Congregation Bet Ha’am synagogue, on Westbrook Street in South Portland’s Thornton Heights neighborhood, has more than 350 member-families and is noted for its unique design. 

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