Cumberland Ave. housing project wins approval

August 28, 2013 in Articles

Author: Randy Billings
Publication: Portland Press Herald

The Portland Planning Board acts over neighbors' objections to the development's limited parking.

PORTLAND – The Planning Board on Tuesday unanimously approved a 57-unit housing development on Cumberland Avenue that will mix market-rate and affordable units but provide only limited parking.

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Digital renderings of 57-unit, mixed-income apartment complex proposed by Avesta Housing at 409 Cumberland Ave. in Portland.

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The project, which will have just 18 parking spaces, was approved over the objection of nearby residents, who complained that finding parking is already difficult – especially in the winter.

Seth Parker, the director of real estate development with the nonprofit Avesta Housing, which is developing the project, said construction would likely begin in December and last about a year.

The $10.2 million project at 409 Cumberland Ave. would have 11 market-rate units and 46 affordable units in a five-story building.

Avesta hopes to secure additional financing for a roof-top greenhouse and raised garden beds, Parker said.

If that happens, it would be the first green roof in the city, according to planners.

"We haven't been able to find another one," said Caitlin Cameron, the city's urban designer.

The project was approved after a lengthy and at times contentious discussion about parking.

Many area residents, especially those living on Mechanic and Hanover streets, said 18 spaces are not enough, since parking is already a challenge in the neighborhood.

Others, however, noted the need for affordable housing -- especially as the city grapples with homelessness. They said the units would attract residents who preferred to walk, bike or use public transit.

Hanover Street resident Hilda Taylor acknowledged that the project was forward-thinking in that it plans on having mostly car-free residents.

"I think it's looking a little too forward to a reality that's not quite here yet," Taylor said. "People have cars."

Board members mostly agreed that parking was already an issue in the neighborhood, but disagreed whether it was an issue they had the authority to handle.

Board members roundly criticized the Payment in Lieu of Parking program, which allows developers to pay a one-time fee of $5,000 for every parking space required by the city code that it cannot provide. That money goes into a general transportation fund that can be used to improve parking, public transit and bike-pedestrian amenities, according to planning division director Alex Jaegerman.

Board members believe the $5,000 is too low, calling it a political number, not one based on reality, since the cost of building one structured parking spot is $25,000.

The city code requires one parking space be provided for each residential unit. However, other options have been added in recent years for housing developers in business zones. In addition to the Payment in Lieu of Parking program, one car-sharing space counts as eight parking spaces.

Avesta requested -- and the Planning Board granted -- permission to only provide 0.7 spaces per unit without penalty.

It intends to pay the city a fee for 15 parking spaces it will not provide on the site and employ the option of having a dedicated car-sharing space count for eight spaces. City staff counts the total number of spaces as being 40, even though only 18 spaces are actually being provided.

A spirited debate ensued about whether the board could generate more revenue to address parking issues in the neighborhood by denying Avesta's request to be responsible for just 40 parking spaces, rather than the 57 required by code.

Board member Jack Soley said that making Avesta responsible for all of the parking under city code would only amount to an additional $85,000, which was a fraction of the overall cost on the $10 million project.

However, board member Bill Hall said the applicant provided detailed information justifying the reduced parking requirement and staff had signed off on it.

The board ultimately rejected Soley's recommendation by a 6-2 vote.

Avesta plans to finance the project with a 20-year property tax reduction intended to promote affordable housing development; a federal low-income housing block grant through the city; and low-income housing tax credits through the Maine State Housing Authority.

Eleven units would be leased at market rates ranging from $825 to $1,400 per month, while 46 subsidized units would go for $669 to $1,030 per month for households with incomes ranging from $25,000 to $40,000.

Steve Hirshon, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said Avesta should commit to the green roof design due to the level of public investment in the project.

Parker said the greenhouse and raised garden beds would cost an additional $450,000.

"We're still fully committed to figuring out how to make that work," he said.

The project would also include a community kitchen for public cooking classes on the first floor, as well as additional classroom and office space.




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