Thursday, June 23, 2011

‘Artist in residence’ program at 660 Congress St. never materialized
By Casey Conley
Jun 23, 2011 12:00 am

A vacant building in the upper Arts District owned by millionaire philanthropist Roxanne Quimby has been put up for sale.

Tom Moulton, an agent with NAI/The Dunham Group, confirmed yesterday that the three-story townhouse at 660 Congress St. was on the market. He said the asking price was $295,000 — roughly $55,000 less than Quimby paid for it in May 2009.

The 7,200-square-foot building was listed just a few days ago.

Quimby, who was a co-founder of the natural skincare company Burt’s Bees, bought the building with the intention of converting it into studio space for emerging artists. The concept was praised by city officials and nearby businesses, but the “artist in residence” vision never materialized at that site.

Indeed, the project was beset by one hurdle after another.

In late 2009, Quimby asked for and received a special exemption from the city council allowing her to avoid $405,000 in fees, but the decision was not without controversy. At issue was her plan to convert seven upper-floor apartments into artist space.

Those conversion plans ran afoul of the city’s housing replacement ordinance, which at that time required developers to pay a $58,000 fee for any housing unit that they eliminated.

Housing advocates urged the city not to grant the exemption, and three city councilors voted against it (including current Mayor Nick Mavodones). The ordinance has since been amended, removing the exemption granted to Quimby.

In early 2010, an arsonist set the building ablaze, causing moderate smoke and fire damage. Since then, the boarded-up building has just sat there.

Portland’s Historic Preservation committee also denied a request to remove large bay windows from the first floor of the building and replace them with another window style.

Quimby abandoned the idea of opening the artist colony at 660 Congress last summer.

"It was a whole variety of things," Councilor Dave Marshall said, when asked what caused the project to fall apart.

"I think the idea of having an artist colony seems good at first, but once she got an idea of ... what the colony would look like, it got to point where it didn't make much sense to use that building," he continued.

Marshall said Quimby's vision for the site, a textile and culinary program, needed open spaces not found at 660 Congress.

Attempts to reach Quimby were not successful yesterday.

According to a website for The Quimby Colony, she hasn't given up on the artist in residence program.

The website says the artist-in-residence program will be run out of a property at 769 Congress St., which was formerly home to The Roma restaurant.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the artist colony had actually opened.

Marshall, whose district includes 660 Congress, said the potential sale of the vacant building was a positive thing for the neighborhood.

“I am hopeful to see a project move forward that will have a positive impact on the community,” he said, adding that he was "optimistic about seeing some development occur there in the near future.”

Moulton, the commercial broker, said the building could have many different uses, including a mix of commercial and residential space. Despite challenging real estate conditions, he predicted a buyer could be found.

“It’s among the last un-renovated buildings on the Peninsula on Congress Street,” he said, adding that “because of its size, it is set up for a small to medium size development.”

Work crews spent much of the day yesterday inside the building preparing it for a sale. According to Moulton, the structure itself is stable despite suffering smoke damage last January. He said the building had largely been gutted.

Built in 1900, the structure was designed by well-known Portland architect Francis Fassett, who also developed part of the Maine Medical Center campus and several West End mansions.

City records show 660 Congress is valued at about $175,000 by the city assessor. The building has sat vacant since 2007.
660 Congress Street

The building at 660 Congress Street owned by Roxanne Quimby has been put up for sale. Asking price is $295,000.
- Casey Conley

City approves $31M tax breaks for Thompson’s Pt. project
By Casey Conley
Jun 22, 2011 12:00 am

As expected, the city council on Monday unanimously approved tax breaks worth an estimated $31.4 million for developers of The Forefront, a mixed-use hotel, office and convention center project planned for Thompson’s Point.

In a separate vote, the council voted down a measure that would have capped the overall value of the tax breaks during the 30-year agreement. That vote failed 5-3 with councilors Dave Marshall, John Anton and Cheryl Leeman in the minority.

Approval of the tax-increment financing deal between the city and developers allows the city to retain roughly 46 percent of new property tax revenues generated from the $100 million development. Developers would keep 54 percent of that new property tax revenue, estimated at $31.4 million to the city’s $26.4 million over the life of the agreement.

Those figures are just estimates, and could change up or down based on future tax rates and the overall valuation of the property.

Not all of that $26.4 million will make it into the city’s general fund budget. Councilors Monday night voted to divert 25 percent of its share of annual revenues from the development into a special fund for transportation improvements. The city council didn’t make any decisions this week on how it would spend that money.

Thompson’s Point Development Co. has proposed building a convention center, two office buildings, a hotel, parking garage and concert venue on Thompson’s Point, in the city’s Libbytown neighborhood. The convention center could be configured into a 3,500-seat arena for the Maine Red Claws minor league basketball team.

Jon Jennings, a principal in the development group, says the project will become a true destination in Portland. He has said the concept is similar to the L.A. Live complex in downtown Los Angeles that's home to the Staples Center basketball arena and other entertainment venues.

Construction is scheduled to begin early next year and wrap up in late 2013.

Approval came less than two weeks after the tax break plan — the largest in the city’s history — was first unveiled to the public. The city council held a special meeting June 13 for the sole purpose of advancing the measure, a step no councilor could recall happening before.

Councilors accelerated the review largely because developers said throughout the process that the project might fall apart if the tax breaks weren’t approved before the end of June.

With the tax break question now settled, the project is heading to the planning stages. It is due to come before the planning board for a workshop on Tuesday, June 28 at 3:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Property Owners Catch Break On New Graffiti Rules
Watered-down graffiti ordinance passes after fines removed
By Casey Conley
Jun 22, 2011 12:00 am

Property owners that fail to remove graffiti from their buildings won’t be fined under new rules passed by the city council this week.

But the ordinance, which passed unanimously Monday night, gives the city authority to remove graffiti from private property and charge the landowner for the work, plus a fee.

The ordinance also includes civil penalties for graffiti vandals caught in the act, offers new guidelines regarding how local stores should regulate the sale of spray cans and paint markers and gives police authority to issue citations for possession of these so-called “graffiti implements.”

People under 18 years old would also be banned from buying graffiti implements without a parent’s consent. The civil penalties come in addition to any criminal charges authorities might levy against vandals accused of writing graffiti.

The new rules take effect July 20.

Trish McAllister, the city’s neighborhood prosecutor, said yesterday that she was concerned that fewer property owners would comply without the threat of a fine.

“That being said, I definitely think passage of the ordinance last night is a great step in the right direction,” she said. “I understand the council's actions completely; they were responsive to the concerns from the public, and I truly do respect that.”

The ordinance was first introduced about six months ago to target graffiti, a problem city officials believe is getting worse. The proposal was built largely upon a similar measure in South Portland that has been largely successful without resorting to fines.

During the roughly four-month review, residents and landlords demonstrated strong support for the intent of the new rules but uneasiness about the fines.

Several downtown building owners argued that fining victims of a crime was not the right approach. Those who supported the fines, including city officials, police and some landlords, said they were necessary to give the ordinance teeth.

The final version of the ordinance represents something of a compromise.

Under the new rules, the city will send notices to property owners if graffiti is left on their home or building. The property owner would have 10 days to present the city with a plan for removing that graffiti.

If the property owner ignores the notice or fails to respond, the city could send crews to remove the graffiti and then bill the owner for the work, plus the 10 percent administrative fee. The city would need permission to gain access to the property. Failure to pay the fee could result in a lien placed on the property.

Brad McCurtain, who owns a building near Monument Square, was among those who spoke out against the fines. He said the council did the right thing by backing away from that proposal.

“That would have been very scary for real estate ownership in the city had that passed the way it was worded,” McCurtain said Tuesday, adding that the language was vague and wouldn't allow property owners to appeal the fine.

An amendment proposed by Councilor Dave Marshall to remove the fines, which ranged from $100 or less for first offenses to $500 for three or more offenses, passed 5-3.

Another amendment that called for the city to create internal policies for how it will adhere to the ordinance for any graffiti left on public property also passed.

“Using a punitive fine system in order to try to encourage property owners to remove graffiti after the property has been vandalized is not the way to go,” Marshall said yesterday.

“I am really glad the council sided with them in removing the fines so that we can work proactively with property owners to remove graffiti from private public property,” he continued.

Aside from new rules and regulations, the city is planning to launch an database shortly that lets residents report graffiti, submit photos and provide exact address information. That system is still in the works, but McAllister said it could include an iPhone or Android app that lets residents report graffiti from their smartphones.

Officials believe the database could encourage people to report graffiti, will lead to quicker removal and also help police track patterns. If a graffiti vandal is caught, that photo evidence could lead to more serious charges against the perpetrator, authorities say.

New Portland graffiti ordinance
removes fines for property owners

But 'taggers' can be fined $500 and be required to do community service.

By Dennis Hoey
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — People who get caught vandalizing property with graffiti will be punished, and their victims won't, under a new ordinance adopted Monday night by the City Council.

The ordinance, which was developed over the course of about six months, passed unanimously.

The minority bloc of councilors opposed an amendment, offered by Councilor David Marshall, that removed an escalating system of fines for property owners who fail to remove graffiti after their buildings get "tagged" by vandals.

Without those fines, which would have ranged from $100 for the first offense to $500 for three or more violations, those councilors said the ordinance would be too weak to compel property owners to comply.

Coyne said it would be like having a spayed pit bull – threatening, but ineffective.

Their arguments failed to persuade the majority of councilors, who supported Marshall's amendment.

"We don't need fines in order to have an effective ordinance," Marshall said.

He noted that the ordinance will require property owners to file plans with the city for removing graffiti within 10 days.

The ordinance also contains penalties.

Anyone who puts graffiti on public or private property can be fined $500 and be required to do at least 25 hours of community service.

Possession or furnishing of graffiti instruments could subject an offender to a fine of as much as $250.

If the city removes the graffiti, the property owner will be charged the cost of removal, plus a 10 percent administrative fee.

Doug Fuss, a bar and restaurant owner in the Old Port, lobbied for passage of the ordinance with fines for property owners who don't remove graffiti. Fuss said the war on graffiti can't be won unless the graffiti is removed quickly.

James Harmon, who owns 130 rental units in Portland, said he supports the ordinance, but not the fines.

"I think the fines are unfair," he said.

"Don't victimize the victims all over again," said Charles Bragdon, a Portland resident.

Suslovic, who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee, said there is widespread consensus in the community that graffiti is a problem. "It seems to be everywhere," he said.

Along with Marshall, the councilors who voted to pass the ordinance were Jill Duson, John Anton, Dory Waxman and Mayor Nicholas Mavodones.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Posted: June 21
Updated: Today at 5:18 PM

Portland approves tax break
for Thompson's Point development

City councilors also decide to fund transit projects with one-quarter of the tax money generated by the project over 30 years.

By Edward D. Murphy
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – The City Council approved a $31 million, 30-year tax break for a new development on Thompson’s Point early today and decided to set aside 25 percent of the money the city will receive, to be used for transit projects.

The council did not specify how it will use the transit money, although Councilor David Marshall pointed out it would be enough to pay for an express bus from the Portland International Jetport to the Portland Transportation Center – next to the proposed Thompon’s Point development – and then on to the Maine State Pier.

The tax break drew some opposition at the late-night public hearing, but a number of downtown development and transit officials praised the proposal, to be called The Forefront at Thompson’s Point, as a spur to economic development and a job creator.

The $100 million project will include two office buildings, a hotel, an arena/convention center, a concert hall and a parking garage. The developers said they need the tax break to cover higher costs due to the marine clay on the site, as well as a costly rail crossing. Their timeline calls for getting city and state approvals by the end of the year, with construction getting under way early next year.

The city will take in an estimated $26.4 million over 30 years, with 25 percent – or about $6.6 million in total – going toward transit.

Staff Writer Edward Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: emurphy@press

Posted: June 21

Updated: Today at 12:37 AM

Project to help Casco Bay gets fast-tracked, will increase sewer rates

Portland's City Council decides to act more quickly on stopping storm-driven sewage that overflows into the bay.

By Edward D. Murphy
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The City Council voted to speed up a costly sewer project Monday, deciding to fix most of the overflow points that dump raw sewage into Portland's waterways in 15 years. City staff had recommended spreading the work – and the cost – over 25 years.

The sewage project, which will cost $170 million and triple most homeowners' sewer rates, even surprised several representatives of the Friends of Casco Bay who had turned out to urge the council to step up the pace of a project that is already three years overdue.

"The council listened," said Joe Payne, baykeeper for Friends of Casco Bay. "They're ready to say, 'We're done with dumping raw sewage into Casco Bay.' "

The city's public services staff had suggested a 25-year timetable for the work, which will end most of the sewage overflows that occur in heavy rain. But councilors said they think the project, which will dramatically decrease the amount of sewage that goes into the bay, needs to be done sooner.

The city signed an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency in 1993 to close most of the overflows, which are relief valves that keep the sewer system from backing up when heavy rain is combined with sanitary sewers.

Because most of the city's household and industrial waste flows through the same pipes that carry storm runoff, heavy rain can overtax the system, creating the need for overflow points that allow both rainwater and raw sewage to run into Casco Bay, the Fore River, Portland Harbor and Back Cove.

But the work to create separate lines for the two types of sewage has run behind. By the time the official deadline for fixing 33 of the 39 overflows passed in 2008, only nine had been done. And the projections for the rest of the work topped $500 million.

Now, city officials have come up with a system that relies on underground storage conduits to hold the sewage and storm water in heavy rains until the city's water treatment plant can catch up, cutting the cost to $170 million.

The plan also uses "green" methods, such as "rain gardens" which are designed to absorb rainwater and allow it to flow into the ground rather than running into catch basins.

Payne and others said a 25-year timetable would stretch out the work until at least 2038 -- the new phase of the project begins in 2013 -- more than three decades beyond the original agreement for closing most of the overflows.

"Twenty-five years is too long," Payne told the council. "It's going to be inherited by our kids and grandkids."

The council considered and ultimately rejected a compromise proposal to do the work over 20 years.

It also considered asking city staff members to work up cost estimates and work schedules showing how the project would be handled if the timetable was for 15, 20 or 25 years.

Ultimately, however, they went with the faster fix.

"We're going to have to pay for this sooner or later," said Councilor David Marshall.

It will actually be homeowners and businesses paying the bill, however, through higher rates that will pay off the bonds used to borrow the money.

City projections are that either the 15- or 25-year plan will triple rates and a typical homeowner's sewer bill will rise from about $400 a year currently to about $1,300 once the full impact of the bond bills kicks in.

The 15-year plan plan means bills will hit that point in about eight years.

The tax break vote was delayed by several lengthy public hearings Monday night.

Councilors are considering a tax increment financing plan that would allow the developers to get back about $31 million out of more than $56 million they will pay in property taxes over 30 years if the $100 million project, The Forefront at Thompson's Point, goes through.

The developers said the TIF would allow them to cover high costs from developing the site, which contains marine clay and will require piles to be driven about 100 feet to reach bedrock.

They are also including several public enhancements, such as a 700-car parking garage, that will be made more affordable by the tax break, the developers said.

The project as proposed will include two office buildings, a hotel, an arena/convention center and a concert hall in addition to the garage.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Some councilors irked by ‘unusual’ special meeting
By Casey Conley
Jun 14, 2011 12:00 am

The proposed $100 million project at Thompson’s Point could fall apart if the city doesn’t act on $31 million in tax breaks by month's end, developers said yesterday.

Jon Jennings, a principal in the project known as “The Forefront,” said that “more than likely the project won’t go forward in Portland” if the tax breaks aren’t finalized by the end of June.

“We have asked for a time line that would get us through the process by the end of the month because we have some extraordinary costs we are obligated to do by the first part of July,” Jennings said.

He declined to comment on whether the project might move ahead in another municipality if it falls through in Portland.

Jennings added that the investment team behind the project must soon make a “sizable payment” on a 25-acre development plot, and that they won’t make that type of commitment unless “we know we are working in a cooperative fashion” with the city.

To that end, the city council held a special meeting last night that addressed the proposed 30-year tax-increment financing plan for the development, which would include a conference center, hotel, office buildings, a restaurant, and 3,500-seat arena for the Maine Red Claws minor league basketball team.

The special meeting caught at least one city councilor by surprise, and its timing was questioned by at least two other councilors.

The tax deal, which was endorsed less than a week ago by the city council’s Community Development Committee, would let developers keep $31.4 million out of an estimated $58 million in new property taxes over 30 years.

The city would receive about $26.4 million of that tax revenue spread over 30 years, minus 3 percent that would be set aside each year in a fund for transportation improvements.

If the site is left undeveloped, it will generate about $3 million in property taxes over the next 30 years. Currently, the parcel is home to a propane company and the rail authority that runs the Amtrak Downeaster train.

Thompson’s Point is located at the end of Sewell Street, just steps from the Portland Transportation Center, in the city’s Libbytown neighborhood.

A study commissioned by developers said the project would create more than 1,200 jobs during construction and sustain about 450 jobs each year afterward. The project is due to be completed in late 2013. Those figures could not be independently confirmed.

Regardless, some city councilors weren’t thrilled that a special city council meeting was called to give the tax deal a first reading, a step one councilor called “unusual.”

Major agreements like this one require two readings by the city council before a vote can be held.

“I do not see the need to move so fast,” Councilor John Anton said in an email. “The developer has yet to identify tenants for the office buildings and says that they can't close unless they have tenants. My understanding is that they have a $100,000 payment due to the seller, which I believe can be extended.”

“It is unusual,” Councilor Kevin Donoghue said of the meeting. “It is not yet known to me how or why the judgment was made that a special meeting was warranted.”

Mayor Nick Mavodones said he called the meeting on the request of the Community Development Committee. He added that he wants to see this TIF matter settled by the end of June.

Councilor Dave Marshall said scheduling the first reading for a special meeting was “not the cleanest way to move forward” but added that developers were pressuring the city to make a decision this month.

“It’s not common for the council to have special meetings to get a first reading on the agenda, and it’s really the desire of the developer to get the financing in place based on the pressure the developers are receiving from their investors,” Marshall said. “That’s what’s gotten the city to this place.”

Marshall said he was “not totally comfortable with the process being laid out” regarding the TIF discussion.

“I would prefer to follow the regular process, where we would have a regular first reading at a regularly scheduled meeting,” he said.

Developers say the tax-increment financing deal is necessary to offset higher-than-normal costs due to unusual soil conditions at the site. Also, upgrades at a railroad crossing on the site are expected to cost upwards of $1 million.

Speaking to city councilors yesterday, Jennings said the project would become a “true destination” in the city similar to L.A. Live, the development in Los Angeles that includes the Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Lakers, among other venues. He and other supporters cite the project's proximity to multiple modes of transit and say it offers amenities not currently found in the Portland market.

The development is expected to meet LEED silver conservation standards or better, and include free public access to trails and a boat launch into the Fore River.

Jennings said developers have a “pretty aggressive time line” in place because the development window on a project like this can "open and close quickly." “Any number of things could impact (the project) if we extended it over a long time,” he told councilors.

At the special meeting and a workshop that preceded it, councilors inquired about potential demand for new hotels and office space amid high vacancy rates downtown and also wondered if the 3 percent figure to be set aside annually for transportation could be adjusted.

City economic director Greg Mitchell said the amount of money set aside for transportation each year could be amended up or down in the future. He p the office towers at Thompson’s Point wouldn’t compete with vacant office space on Congress Street, and pointed to new hotel construction as evidence that the market needs more rooms.

Councilors didn’t take action on the tax break proposal last night. A vote on the issue is expected at the city council’s June 20 meeting.

Copyright 2011, The Portland Daily Sun - Portland's Daily Newspaper - One Longfellow Square, Suite 202, Portland, ME 04102 - (207) 699-5801

Posted: June 14
Updated: Today at 12:13 AM

Portland councilors consider how to spend tax revenue from Forefront

One councilor wants to increase the amount of tax revenue set aside to support transit projects.

By Edward D. Murphy
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — City councilors considering a tax break for developers of a proposed $100 million complex at Thompson's Point are starting to think about how they might spend the city's share of new property tax money the project would generate.

The council was briefed Monday on the proposed break of $31 million over 30 years for The Forefront at Thompson's Point, a development that will include a basketball arena/convention center, concert hall, hotel, two office buildings and 700-car garage on a site that has changed little in the past century but is considered a prime gateway into Portland.

The council will be asked next week to name the Thompson's Point peninsula a tax increment financing district. The designation allows the developers to have some of their property taxes returned to them – 54 percent of nearly $58 million in projected property tax payments over the next three decades.

The city takes a smaller share of taxes – $26.4 million over 30 years – in return for the development and revenue it might not otherwise get.

City officials also note that The Forefront will provide an estimated 1,230 jobs during construction next year and into 2013 and about 455 permanent jobs once the development is operating.

The Thompson's Point district would be a transit-oriented TIF because of its location next to I-295, the Portland Transportation Center bus and rail station and near the Portland International Jetport.

The council's Community Development Committee voted last week to recommend setting aside 3 percent of the city's share of the tax revenue to support as-yet-unspecified transit projects.

But Monday, Councilor David Marshall said he will seek to increase that figure.

"It's going to be a lot more than 3 percent – probably in the 30 to 50 percent range," he said.

Marshall said that amount will be needed to support a bus route to and from the airport to Thompson's Point and the transportation center, then into downtown Portland and the Maine State Pier.

That route, he said, would tie all of the city's major forms of transportation together – planes, trains, buses and ferries.

Other than Marshall signaling that he's looking to direct more money toward transportation, little new came out at the council's workshop on the project.

Mayor Nicholas Mavodones asked about a cap on the dollar amount that developers could get from the TIF, but the developers said that would take away any incentive to upgrade the project.

If a tenant wants a more energy-efficient building, for instance, the developers could offset the higher cost with an increase in its TIF share because the development would be worth more.

Before the workshop on the Thompson's Point TIF, the council was briefed on a costly sewer upgrade that will also be on next week's agenda.

Eighteen years ago, the city agreed to fix 33 of the 39 combined sewer overflow points in Portland by 2008, but only nine have been repaired. The overflows are relief valves of sorts for occasions when heavy rain flows into storm sewers, many of which are still combined with sanitary sewers.

During storms, runoff from heavy rain could overtax sewer lines, causing them to back up, so the system has relief points that open to ease the pressure, allowing untreated sewage to flow into streams, rivers, Portland Harbor and Back Cove.

The city has been working to install separate storm and sewer lines, but continuing along that path means a bill of more than $500 million, Michael Bobinsky, Portland's director of public services, told the council.

Instead, the city now wants to install storage conduits underground which will hold more water during storms, ideally until the city's wastewater treatment plant can catch up.

The biggest sticking point is timing. Bobinsky is recommending the council install the conduits, along with some other measures to deal with downpours, at a cost of $170 million over 25 years.

Friends of Casco Bay and the Conservation Law Foundation are pushing for a project.

Bobinsky said both approaches will triple sewer rates, from slightly more than $400 a year now to more than $1,200, but it will take longer for rates to hit that point under the 25-year plan.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

View District Two: A Work in Progress in a larger map