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

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