Portland committee OKs sale of downtown plaza

August 22, 2013 in Articles

Author: Randy Billings
Publication: Portland Press Herald

The City Council will vote on the $524,000 agreement for Congress Square Plaza on Sept. 9.

PORTLAND – Over the objection of more than a dozen residents, the City Council's Housing and Community Development Committee voted 3-1 Wednesday to sell most of a downtown plaza to a developer that wants to build an event center.

The Congress Square Plaza is seen in this aerial image on Saturday, August 17, 2013. - Gabe Souza

The council will vote on the purchase-and-sale agreement Sept. 9, said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who chairs the committee.

Under the agreement, Rockbridge Capital would pay about $524,000 for 9,500 square feet of the nearly half-acre plaza at the corner of High and Congress streets.

The developer would pay an additional $45,000 to improve adjacent sidewalks and $50,000 toward a comprehensive planning effort for the entire intersection, known as Congress Square.

The deal would leave 4,800 square feet, not including sidewalks, for a new public plaza. The design of that space is being included in a visioning process for Congress Square that is just getting under way.

Councilor Kevin Donoghue was the only committee member to oppose the sale Wednesday night. He cited the lack of design details for the new plaza and any provision in case the new plaza doesn't work out as hoped.

"It is for that reason I can't ignore the overwhelming public comment from the residents of this city," Donoghue said. "I really don't feel I have a mandate to vote yes, or feel I have enough information to vote yes on behalf of the residents."

Rockbridge Capital is in the middle of a nearly $50 million renovation of the former Eastland Park Hotel, which is expected to open in December as the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel.

Rockbridge proposes a 5,000-square-foot event space in a 9,500-square-foot addition. The wall facing the plaza would be glass and the lobby area would double as an art gallery.

According to the sale agreement, the event center would have to be the primary use for at least 10 years, with at least six public art shows held there each year.

Any conversion to a non-hotel use after that period would require City Council approval.

Councilor Edward Suslovic said the event center would bring 300-400 people per event, which would boost business downtown. The additional revenue -- from the sale of the land and the property taxes -- could be used to pay for a comprehensive redesign of Congress Square, he said.

"We could have done that without (the event center), but we hadn't, and quite frankly I don't think we had the financial resources to do that without the revenue coming in," Suslovic said.

During more than an hour of public comment, 16 residents spoke against the sale -- describing both the purchase price and the amount of space for a new plaza as "a slap in the face."

Many opposed city Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell's assertion that the existing plaza is a blighted area that would be cleaned up by the development.

Opponents have long claimed -- and City Councilor John Coyne has conceded -- that the city has neglected the plaza.

John Branson, an attorney who provided free services to the Occupy Maine group when it took over Lincoln Park a year and a half ago, said the city's real concern seems to be with the people who use the park -- mostly low- to no-income people.

"People are not blight," said Branson, who said he was asked recently to help opponents of the sale, "perhaps legally."

Frank Turek of the Friends of Congress Square Park said the sale seems to go against multiple city plans, none of which calls for the sale of Congress Square Plaza, and instead call for protecting and enhancing public open space.

Six people, most affiliated with business groups, spoke in support of the sale, saying it would bring in much-needed business to the arts district.

Chis O'Neil, from the Portland Community Chamber, gave the plan a "thumbs up."

Steve Hewins, interim director of Portland's Downtown District, said more convention space is needed to bring people downtown in the winter. Convention business spills over to other hotels, and four new hotels are being built downtown, he said.

"If we have a vision of creating a year-round destination for Portland, which I think we do, we need to fill rooms outside the months of July, August, September and October," Hewins said.

Parkside resident Jill Barkley also supported the sale, saying it would be an economic benefit and generate money for the city to make a better -- if not smaller -- public park.

Opponents, however, said that if the council is intent on selling the land for development, it should solicit other proposals to find the highest and best use, rather than working exclusively with Rockbridge Capital.

Tim Shannon, a Portland lawyer, said Congress Street is a "marquee property" and the city has been given a false choice of choosing the development plan or maintaining the status quo.

"An underutilized park in a prime location need not be turned into a bland single-story concrete bunker," Shannon said. "This could be much more than it is right now."

John Eder said the council is at odds with its constituents and is poised to take an action that mars its legacy.

"You're choosing an outside developer over residents," Eder said. "You are setting up a very contentious process with your citizens."


Home sales jump 31% in July

August 22, 2013 in News

Author: MaineBiz
Publication: www.mainebiz.biz

Single-family home sales for July jumped nearly 31% over last year, according to the latest statistics from the Maine Real Estate Information System.


Biddeford Market Basket a big hit among early shoppers

August 22, 2013 in Articles

Author: Beth Quimby
Publication: Portland Press Herald

The new 107,000-square foot store boasts 9-foot wide aisles, a sushi bar, pizza shop, lunch counter and 60,000 items.

BIDDEFORD - With shoppers waiting outside, the doors were opened about 75 minutes ahead of schedule Sunday morning at the new Market Basket grocery store at the Biddeford Crossing plaza on Route 111.

Market Basket opens its first Maine store, at Biddeford Crossing on Route 111 in Biddeford, on Sunday morning. - Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Shoppers leave Market Basket as it opens its first store in Maine, in Biddeford, on Sunday. - Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Micum McIntire, the store's manager, said even though the official opening was set for 7 a.m., the store wanted to accommodate the predawn customers.

"Good morning, shoppers, and welcome to our first store in the state," McIntire announced over the sound system as shoppers poured in.

By 7:15 a.m., the 500-car parking lot was full and lines were forming at all 24 registers as customers browsed 9-foot-wide aisles stocked with gleaming rows of perfectly arranged products.

Shoppers had 60,000 different products to choose from.

The 107,000-square-foot store is the largest supermarket in Maine, according to Market Basket officials.

The Massachusetts-based chain enters an increasingly competitive market in Maine.

Less than a decade ago the supermarket landscape was dominated by Hannaford and Shaw's. With the entry of warehouse and discount department stores and high-end specialty stores, that landscape now includes Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, Walmart and Target stores.

Known for its low prices, Market Basket operates stores in 71 other locations. David McLean, Market Basket's operations manager, said that based on customer demand, the company had been looking for a Maine location and saw an opportunity in the space vacated by Lowe's at Biddeford Crossing.

"Biddeford is turning into a shopping mecca," McLean said.

He pointed out the new store's tiled floors and covered ceilings, which he said offer shoppers a more aesthetically pleasing experience than warehouse stores.

On Sunday morning, many of the early shoppers said they had been driving to the nearest Market Basket -- more than 30 miles away in New Hampshire -- for years.

"I usually go to the Market Basket in Portsmouth," said Helen Bergeron of Sanford, one of the first shoppers through the registers.

Christina Shea of Saco pushed a cart, one of 750 at the store, piled high with goods. She carried a shopping list and coupons, but her cart included a number of impulse purchases she said she had to buy because the prices were so good.

"The cart is full, so I have got to stop," said Shea.


Walmart scraps planned expansion that closed Falmouth cinema

August 2, 2013 in Articles

Author: J. Craig Anderson
Publication: Portland Press Herald

An attorney blames high construction costs, while a former town councilor expresses frustration that the town lost its only movie theater.

Walmart will not go ahead with a proposed store expansion in Falmouth that prompted the closing of an adjacent movie theater, a town official said.

An aerial view of the Falmouth business district, including Walmart, at upper right.

2012 Press Herald File Photo / Gabe Souza

Senior Town Planner Ethan Croce said he got a call this week from a Walmart attorney who said the Rogers, Ark.-based company has scrapped its plan to expand into the former Regal Cinemas, next to the Walmart in Falmouth Plaza on Route 1.

The attorney cited higher-than-expected construction costs as the reason, Croce said.

Walmart spokesman Bill Wertz confirmed that the company has decided not to move forward with the expansion, and that the reason is construction costs.

Wertz would not offer any additional details.

The town granted Walmart approval in November 2011 to convert its 92,000-square-foot store into a 124,000-square-foot Super Walmart by taking over the Regal Cinemas lease. The theater closed in April 2012 as a result.

Super Walmarts, which average just under 200,000 square feet nationwide, include grocery stores, pharmacies and garden centers, according to the company's website.

Falmouth passed an ordinance in the fall to limit the allowable footprint of big-box stores along Route 1 to 50,000 square feet, said former Town Councilor Bonny Rodden, who was involved in getting the limit passed.

A building's footprint is the square footage of its ground floor. The ordinance would not prevent a business from expanding beyond 50,000 square feet by adding floors, Croce said.

Because Walmart's expansion approval predates the passage of the footprint limit, the company was granted an exemption. The exemption will expire at the end of October if the company hasn't broken ground on the project.

Rodden said the aborted Walmart expansion wouldn't have been a problem if the town's only movie theater hadn't closed as a result.

"What's most frustrating to the residents of Falmouth is that they lost the theater thinking they were going to get a bigger Walmart," she said.


Home prices keep soaring

July 30, 2013 in Articles

Author: Chris Isidore
Publication: CNNMoney

Home prices continued to gain steam in May according to a closely-watched reading, even as mortgage rates climbed.

The S&P/Case-Shiller home price index was up 12.2% compared to a year ago, slightly better than the 12.1% rise in April. It was the biggest year-over-year jump in prices since March 2006, near the peak of the housing bubble.

Prices in two cities - Dallas and Denver - hit record highs, topping even the peaks they reached during the housing bubble.

However, the national index, which measures prices in the 20 largest markets, is still 24.4% below the peak of June 2006.

Just a year ago, the index posted a 12-month decline in prices. Sellers had been struggling while their homes languished on the market for months, or even years. But prices have increased every month since June 2012, and each month the increase has been greater than the month before.

The gain in home prices has now made this a good time to sell a home. Many sellers are finding themselves in the midst of bidding wars, with buyers eager to make a purchase in a market with a tight supply of houses available for sale. House hunters are also eager to lock in a mortgage while rates are still low, at least by historic standards.

The record low mortgage rates of earlier this year have risen significantly, crimping the purchasing power of potential home buyers. But climbing rates have yet to slow the rapid increase in home prices.

Additionally, prices are being boosted by a sharp drop in foreclosures, which had been holding prices down.

"Home prices continue to strengthen," says David M. Blitzer, Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. All 20 markets measured in the index have higher prices than they did in April. The housing market's recovery has been an important factor in the nation's overall economic improvement.

Home recovery spurs renovation boom

Many of the markets with the biggest year-over-year changes in prices are those that were hit hardest by housing's collapse. Prices in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Atlanta are all up more than 20% from a year ago. New York had the most modest rise with a 3.3% increase.

But the rapid price gains over the last year are at a level that no expert thinks can be sustained. Some have even suggested it was unhealthy for the market, raising the risk of a new housing bubble, at least in some regions. The rapid rise of housing prices in the middle of the decade eventually sparked the crisis in the financial markets and the Great Recession.

But Joseph LaVorgna, chief US economist for Deutsche Bank, said he believes prices still have room to increase further, even if their pace slows.

"Affordability remains near historic highs despite the recent rise in rates and home prices," he said. "And the increase in home prices should encourage banks to ease lending standards for mortgages, since the collateral for the underlying loan is appreciating in value."

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