That’s My Dump!
Five Year Reunion: 2011-2016
by Chris Busby
408 Preble St., South Portland
In the winter of 2011 our dump hunter was a young man named Chad Frisbie who did a bang-up job researching banged-up properties for the That’s My Dump! series. The first one he found was a real doozey, a house on the corner of Willow and Preble streets, in South Portland’s adorable Willard Square neighborhood, that hadn’t been adored for the better part of a decade.
The owner, Lisa Foster, was a Londoner who’d spent summers during her teens at this house, which was owned by her grandmother. Foster and her husband bought the place from her mother in 2004 and began making big plans that soon turned into a big hassle.
The old house at 408 Preble St., built in 1790, was elevated, rotated clockwise 90 degrees and, during the summer of 2009, it slowly slid — “like a snail,” remarked Bob Johnson, owner of Scratch Baking Co. nearby — to the back of the lot, where it has since become the duplex at 96-98 Willow St. Frisbie observed that its asbestos shingles and siding were ripped off, and the mud-caked windows that weren’t already broken were boarded up, as were several doorways.
Foster’s plan was to erect a three-story building where the house had stood. The top floor would have two apartments with sweeping views of Casco Bay. The second floor would be an artist co-op of sorts, where creatives could rent studio space and attend classes. On the first floor there’d be a gallery and a café, serving beer and wine, where SoPo bohemians could gather and feel hip together. At one point in her plans’ protracted evolution, Foster tossed a small farmers’ market into the mix too.
The renovation and sale of the duplex was supposed to provide the “financial footing” to make the arts-café project possible, but after years of cross-Atlantic wrangling with city officials and neighbors over zoning, parking and permits, the Fosters finally threw in the towel. The duplex on Willow Street, which looks quite nice these days, was sold in 2013, for $450,000, to an attorney who works in New York City (and doesn’t respond to requests for comment). The little lot on Preble Street, where the house once stood, also changed hands in 2013, for $140,000. There’s no indication at this point that it harbors pretentions to be anything other than a grassy patch of yard.
660 Congress St., Portland
Years before Burt’s Bees co-founder Roxanne Quimby kicked a hornets’ nest in the North Woods by donating land for a new National Monument, the philanthropist’s real-estate deals were generating buzz in Portland.
In 2009 Quimby bought the triangular brick building at 660-662 Congress St. for $350,000. Built in the 1880s by George S. Hunt, who owned a sugar refinery on the waterfront, it was designed in the Queen Anne style by notable local architect Francis Fassett. The two upper floors had small apartments and the ground floor was occupied by a variety of businesses over the years, including a tailor shop and an antiques store.
Quimby planned to spend $1 million to convert the seven apartments on the upper floors into studio space for fashion designers and textile artists, and the ground floor into a gallery for their work. Portland’s housing-replacement ordinance requires developers who remove residential units from the market to either pay a fee for each unit or build additional housing elsewhere. Quimby would have had to put over $400,000 into the city’s affordable-housing fund, but she objected and the City Council caved. Councilors agreed to designate Quimby’s “colony” a “project of special merit,” and waived all the fees.
The George S. Hunt block is located just east of Longfellow Square. Joe’s Smoke Shop was across the street, and porn emporium Video Expo is in the building next door. The little parking lot behind Video Expo’s building and the long alleyway behind the Hunt block have long been a convenient, secluded location for denizens of downtown to engage in a variety of petty crimes (public drinking/urination, dope deals, vandalism).
According to news reports, in January of 2010 a homeless man broke into the vacant Hunt building through a door to the back alley and built a small fire inside to keep warm. The blaze spread and caused considerable damage (the man apparently escaped unharmed), which doubled the estimated cost of renovations to $2 million. Quimby soldiered on, but was soon stymied by the city’s Historic Preservation Board, which objected to her architect’s plan to replace the bay windows facing Congress Street with plate-glass windows for the gallery. The board’s decision was “very disturbing to me,” Quimby told us back then. “I didn’t know where to go from there. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The project was spiraling out of control, both cost-wise and time-wise.”
Quimby abandoned her plans for the Hunt property and turned her attention a few blocks west. In the fall of 2010 she picked up another historic Fassett building, the Rines Mansion at 769 Congress St. (former home of the Roma Café and Bramhall Pub), and established her arts colony there. The artists-in-residence resided in an eight-unit apartment building nearby, at 727 Congress, which was owned by one of her foundations, according to the Portland Press Herald.
After about a year, Quimby closed the colony and her foundation sold the apartment building to a condo developer for $925,000, the daily paper reported. A few months later, in March of 2012, Quimby gave Maine College of Art $400,000 to start its Textile & Fashion Design program. In remarks announcing the colony’s “merger” with MECA, Quimby said she was moved to act after hearing billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg describe the shrinking of Manhattan’s famous Garment District. “If that was the trend in Manhattan, then perhaps Portland could position itself to be the recipient,” she said, according to the Herald. “I thought that anybody who lived in Brooklyn would be happy in Portland.”
Meanwhile, the Portlanders who own small businesses downtown were increasingly unhappy with Quimby’s neglect of the Hunt block. With its bay windows boarded up and tagged with graffiti, the building’s sheltered stoops became “a nexus of reprehensible activity,” said Michelle Souliere, proprietor of The Green Hand, a bookshop across the street. Police were routinely called to deal with drunks and troublemakers who’d made the Hunt block their hangout.
Quimby put the Hunt property on the market in June of 2011 for $295,000. In December of that year, Freeport developer Kenn Guimond bought it for $225,000. He told the Press Herald there’d be renovated apartments on the upper floors and refurbished commercial space beneath. “My guess is about an 18-month project,” Guimond said.
Five years later, the project is finally finished. “It wasn’t until we got our engineer in the building that we found it in much greater disrepair than we thought, and it would take pretty much a complete restructuring of the interior,” Guimond told Mainebiz last May.
Guimond hired Present Architecture — a firm in New York City where his son, Andre Guimond, is a principal — to do the job, which ended up costing over $2 million. The results are stunning. The Guimonds turned each of the upper floors into a two-bedroom luxury apartment, and renovated the first-floor commercial space and basement. Photos posted on the website ArchDaily reveal that behind the meticulously preserved façade are modern open-concept living areas with white walls and hardwood floors. The third-floor unit has artfully angled ceilings with skylights.
But the most stunning feature of the apartments is the rent. A listing for the 1,550-square-foot unit on the second floor, posted on the website Hotpads, says this pad costs $3,200 per month, utilities not included. It’s “no longer available,” according to the site. (Perhaps a fashionable family from Brooklyn moved in.)
Although the renovation resulted in seven market-rate apartments being converted into two luxury ones, the city did not require Kenn Guimond to pay a housing-replacement fee, because all of the area in the building previously used for housing is still being used for housing.
So, for those of you playing at home in your unaffordable Portland apartments, Quimby’s brief effort to colonize downtown resulted in a net loss of 15 reasonably priced rental units, $400,000 for a private art college, and jack squat for affordable-housing development. On the bright side, area business owners say there have been noticeably fewer street hassles since Guimond cleaned up the mess.
258 Middle Rd., Falmouth
Millbrook Dance Hall, Westbrook
Two popular gathering places of centuries past were profiled in That’s My Dump! five years ago. Neither has changed much at all since then.
The first was the decrepit old house at 258 Middle Rd., in Falmouth. This was the site of the Bucknam Tavern, an inn serving 18th century stagecoach passengers traveling along what is now Route 9. “Legend has it that a guest at the Bucknam [Tavern] once went insane and decapitated his companion,” Frisbie reported. “He chucked the guy’s head out an attic window. Since then, whenever a new pane is installed in that window, it shatters soon afterwards — cursed by the flying cranium.”
That kind of history is bound to depress a property’s market value. It’s been owned by the Forsyth family for over a century, and the owner on the tax rolls these days (Jane Forsyth, of Woburn, Massachusetts) has been content to let the place decay. Viewed through cracked and missing windows, past frayed and faded curtains of dread, the gloomy rooms are still furnished with dusty ghost stuff. I spotted a Norman Rockwell calendar on a nightstand for the year 2002.
There’s no sign that the property has been on the market, and the thin file at Falmouth Town Hall contains no evidence that town officials are concerned about its appearance. Neighbors we spoke with seemed resigned to the situation.
I did find an interesting document in the property’s official file, a letter Forsyth sent to the Board of Zoning Appeals in 1990 regarding the replacement of an ell. It ends with a number of “historical trivia questions.” Among those: “Who are the ghosts that Reverend Kloth exorcised from the house according to Ejnar Larsen?” “Why does window glass in the upstairs front right window refuse to stay in place?” And “Are there Indians buried in the cellar?”
Perhaps those questions are themselves the answer to why this property is still empty.
The other historic party spot is the old Millbrook Dance Hall on Route 302, in Westbrook, diagonally across from Hawkes Plaza and its giant TV repairman. Local bluegrass legend Al Hawkes recalled playing music there in the mid-1940s, when he was in his teens, and his wife Barbara shared memories of waltzing and dancing the foxtrot and the jitterbug on “the most beautiful wooden floor you ever saw.” No alcohol was allowed inside the dance hall, so jittery locals worked up the courage to contradance by pounding beers in the parking lot on Saturday nights.
Hawkes, who still lives nearby, said the dance hall closed in the mid-1950s. The property has been owned by the Phelps family for generations. There was some talk, a decade or so ago, about the parcel being sold for commercial development, but nothing came of that, and owner Hayden Phelps, who also resides nearby, is allowing this slumping dump to fall apart at its own glacial pace.
It’s not an ugly structure, and it’s nice to imagine (or, for some, remember) the good times that once took place there. If you’d like to hear Al Hawkes play, stop into Lenny’s Pub across the street. He still gigs there on the regular.
84 Auburn St., Portland
1210 Brighton Ave., Portland
109 Main St., Gorham
137 Leeman Drive, Bath
Here in Maine, we care about the impression we make on motorists traveling our scenic byways. Littering is illegal, billboards are banned, and so-called “beauty strips” hide the hideousness of clear-cut forestland. However, one type of roadside blight we seem to be stuck with are the crumbling shells of failed corporate chains that cater to those motorists, like the three gas stations we wrote about in 2011.
One was in Portland’s North Deering neighborhood, a Mobil-turned-Global at 84 Auburn St. Competition from two other fossil-fueling stations nearby seems to have doomed this one sometime around the tail-end of the George W. Bush Administration, so it’d been an empty wreck for about four years when we showed up. The property is owned by Alliance Energy Corp., a Massachusetts-based purveyor of gasoline, junk food, cigarettes and other popular poisons, which was attempting to sell it for an undisclosed sum. The rubble where the ripped-out pumps once stood had been repurposed by neighborhood kids into an ad hoc skate park. The cement-block convenience hut looked like the set of a low-budget horror flick, its tile floor splotched with green slime.
All that crap has since been demolished and hauled away, and the vacant lot, currently valued at just over $400,000 by the city’s taxman, is still for sale. NRC Realty & Capital Advisors, a national firm that specializes in flipping properties formerly occupied by gas stations and convenience stores, is the agent these days. It’s conducting a sealed-bid sale for the roughly 28,000-square-foot lot, and the sign says the deadline for bids is January 19. If similar signs on numerous other petrol-properties around town are any indication, there’s no need to rush to submit your offer.
In June of 2011 we updated the condition of the abandoned Mobil at the intersection of Brighton Avenue and Riverside Street. After about a dozen years of not-so-benign neglect, the station was demolished five years ago and its “pad site” was ready to be put on the market by owner Kamlesh Patel, whose company operates the Travelodge motel behind it. As of this writing, the approximately 18,600-square-foot parcel is still available. The listing, by NAI The Dunham Group, says it’s yours to lease for $80,000 per year. Located less than a mile from Maine Turnpike Exit 48, the site is seen by passengers in over 11,300 vehicles every day, according to the broker’s traffic count. That used to be the problem. Now it’s considered an opportunity.
The long-vacant gas station at 109 Main St. in Gorham vexed town officials and local business owners for way too long. Loren Goodrich, the owner of a Subway franchise down the street, bought the property a few years before we wrote about it. His plans to relocate the sandwich shop to this site got snagged in a tangle of traffic-management issues. When it was announced at a town meeting in late 2014 that the weedy lot had been purchased by Jon Smith, of Great Falls Construction, those in attendance broke into “cheers and applause,” the Gorham Times reported.
Smith’s firm sidestepped the traffic issues by preventing direct vehicular access to the property from Main Street, opting instead to connect its parking lot to the short road between Mechanic and Elm streets that feeds the much larger lot of the Hannaford behind this property. As a result, the new building is oddly two-faced, with facades and entrances facing Main Street and Hannaford.
In addition to a U.S. Cellular location and a nail salon, the new building — designed in faux-rustic strip-mall style — contains Goodrich’s Subway and an Aroma Joe’s. The Maine-based drive-thru coffee company teamed up with Goodrich and Subway in an effort to go global. (Yes, you read that right. In the spring of 2014, Goodrich told the Press Herald that the plan is to open Aroma Joe’s franchises in as many countries as Subway operates in, which at that time was 103.)
A fourth auto-related dump we looked into back then was the former car wash on U.S. Route 1 (Leeman Drive) in Bath, just south of the viaduct that’s currently being replaced. The announcement that this particle-boarded-up eyesore had a date with the wrecking ball also elicited applause during a public meeting, according to a May 2011 article in The Times Record. The City of Bath got funds from the Environmental Protection Agency to demolish the structure and decontaminate the site, where a gas station previously operated.
The property was for sale in 2011, along with (yet another) gas station and a third building nearby, occupied by (what else?) a cell-phone store, for $595,000. Nobody bit. Now the empty parcel where the car wash was is back on the market by itself for $195,000. The listing touts its proximity to a Shaw’s supermarket, two fast-food chains, and the CVS that’s under construction where Gilmore’s Sea Foods, a family-run fishmonger and fry shack, used to be, directly behind this site.
202 Kennebec St., Portland
Kennebec is one of those old Portland streets seemingly designed to confuse drivers new to the city. It takes off diagonally, eastward, from the busy intersection of Forest Avenue and Marginal Way. Over the length of its seven blocks it morphs from a one-way street to a two-way three times and gradually disintegrates, revealing the cobblestones beneath the asphalt. It dead-ends at Whole Foods’ parking lot.
The dump we wrote about in September of 2011 was at the western tip of the Bermuda triangle created by Marginal Way, Hanover Street and Kennebec. The squat cement-block structure was actually a squat used by homeless people for shelter until that fall, when that half of the building was finally torn down. The other half was still being used by Century Tire to store inventory, but it too was destined for an extreme makeover.
In February of 2014, Century Tire closed after 88 years in business. Atlantic Bayside Investments, a company run by local developer Ted West, owned Century Tire’s building, the dumpy squat, and two other properties in the triangle. It sold them all, in early 2015, to Northland Enterprises, a Portland-based development company that spent over $1.5 million to buy and renovate the buildings, most of that money raised from investors in Maine and out of state.
What new enterprises replaced the beloved local institution that was Century Tire? You guessed it: a fast-food chain and a cell-phone store. Orangetheory Fitness, a multinational gym giant with hundreds of “health studios” worldwide, recently opened its first Maine location in the same little corpo-complex. (It markets an oxymoronic “group personal training” regimen called “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption,” or EPOC, that involves wearing a heart-rate monitor and just might be as creepy as it sounds.)
I digress. The once-dumpy structure across from all that stuff is still split roughly in half. The western end appears to be a car wash for the Enterprise Rent-A-Car nearby. The eastern half is occupied by Aquarius Ballroom Dance Studios.
“Finally,” you say, “something wholesome and normal: ballroom dance instruction!”
Not so fast.
This outfit, which also offers classes in Brunswick and Harrison, has another, decidedly less normal side: the Live Forever Social Club, “your single stop on the way to immortality.” The four elements of the Club, according to its website, are the dance classes, a “corporate yoga” business called OmBody Health, a nutritional-supplement company called Shaklee, and Nerium, a skin cream and serum line that also includes a dietary supplement, called EHT, that “helps protect against common, age-related mental decline.” More than a few people have called Nerium a pyramid scheme or an outright scam. I’ll just observe that claiming your “Social Club” enables its members to achieve “immortality” doesn’t exactly enhance its credibility.
131 Washington Ave., Portland
The former print shop at the foot of Munjoy Hill, where Fox Street meets Washington Avenue, has supposedly been on the cusp of rebirth for the past half decade. When we checked it out in the fall of 2011, a couple was planning to reopen their art gallery in the building. In 2012, a collective of art-punks mounted a Kickstarter campaign to transform the space into a music venue. They surpassed their $5,000 fundraising goal, and there were some local indie-rock shows held at 131 Washington, but that DIY effort went RIP not long afterward.
The property was sold in early 2015, and the father-and-son team of Mainers Jon and Jake Edwards have made major progress on its renovation, which is being done to historic standards by Papi & Romano Builders. Jake Edwards (the younger) told us last month that he expected a lease would be inked by the end of 2016. Prospective tenants for the front part of the building (the brick section in back is already studio space used by craftspeople) have proposed opening a deli or a bakery there, among other ideas.
“It’s just the two of us trying to do what we can to do some meaningful development in an area that has a lot of condos in it now,” said Jake. In a follow-up e-mail, he wrote, “We’re excited to be able to renovate a space that can be used by a locally owned and operated business. It seems that the knee-jerk reaction is to flatten these old buildings and start over. In many cases it is easier to go this route, but it has been a rewarding process to be involved in this restoration. Given all the new development in the city, it is nice to be able to maintain some of the old charm and tradition where possible. Despite the aesthetics, these dumps often have quite a bit of character and just need some TLC.”
Well said, Jake.