Thursday, June 14, 2007

Press Herald

Handling of land in Bayside questioned

Two councilors call for clearer rules regarding the city's process of selling and leasing its property.

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Staff Writer

Two Portland city councilors are questioning the process being used to sell city-owned land in the Bayside neighborhood.

Councilors Kevin Donoghue and David Marshall say they are unhappy with the way Portland has been handling the disposition of city property in general, including the ongoing review of long-term lease proposals for the Maine State Pier.

Typically, when the city has a large property for sale, it advertises a request for detailed, written proposals. They are due on a certain date and are reviewed publicly based on measurable criteria, such as building design, intended use and payment.

For the Bayside property, the city hired a real estate agent, CBRE/The Boulos Co., through competitive bidding, to market 3.5 acres of former railroad land on Somerset Street.

Boulos negotiated offers from six potential buyers, and the City Council's community development committee voted 3-0 last week to recommend one to the full council.

The committee backed Atlantic Redevelopment Co., which offered $3 million and plans to build a parking garage, housing and as many as three office buildings.

City officials gave a few details about the other offers, excluding financial information they said was deemed confidential by the agent. City officials who are familiar with each proposal said Atlantic offered the most money and the most comprehensive plan, including a 64-unit housing complex.

At a workshop on Monday, councilors were told they could learn more about the other offers if they agreed to keep it confidential.

The state's right to know law allows private negotiations on public lands, with the understanding that details of those talks become public when negotiations end.

Councilor James Cloutier, chairman of the community development committee, said the goal in marketing the property through an agent rather than a city-generated request for proposals was to get the most money for the land. City officials decided to let existing zoning and market demand decide what would be built.

That rationale doesn't satisfy Donoghue and Marshall. Both plan to support Atlantic's proposal but don't like the way the public has been excluded from full disclosure and having a say in the process. Both were elected in November, after city officials decided how to sell the Bayside land.

"I'm concerned about the lack of transparency," Marshall said after the workshop. "It's the public's land. For the council to simply say we're getting the best deal isn't enough."

Donoghue said he doesn't want another barrier, in this case a real estate agent, between him and his constituents. He called Atlantic's effort to satisfy the city's call for mixed-use redevelopment in Bayside an "accident" because the city didn't demand it.

"Having a broker market the property reduces the process to a business transaction, when in fact we are setting land-use policy for Bayside," Donoghue said after the workshop.

Both Donoghue and Marshall believe the city should issue requests for proposals whenever large parcels of land and the future of a neighborhood are at stake. However, neither has much faith in how the city handles requests for proposals.

They oppose the latitude that the community development committee has given to one of two firms that are competing to lease and redevelop the Maine State Pier. The three-member committee, chaired by Cloutier, consists of Donoghue and Councilor Jill Duson as well.

Ocean Properties Ltd. started changing its plan soon after the proposals were submitted in February. The latest is a $100 million redesign to be considered at the committee's next public hearing, at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the pier. The Olympia Cos.' $90 million proposal remains largely unchanged. Both are seeking 99-year leases.

In March, Cloutier and Duson agreed to let Ocean Properties alter its proposal, while Donoghue said he would judge the initial submissions.

The committee is expected to make a recommendation to the council in July. In the meantime, Marshall joins Donoghue in calling for clearer rules for how the city handles its property.

"I'd like to see us develop better guidelines for land disposition in general," Marshall said.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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