Council OKs zoning change for Westin Hotel and Residences
Vote follows haggling over public improvement costs
By Chris Busby
At its Sept. 19 meeting, the Portland City Council approved a zoning change for the Westin Hotel and condominium complex proposed for the site of the former Jordan’s Meats factory on India Street. The variance, which allows the 240-room hotel and 95-unit condo tower to exceed the maximum building height in the area, clears the way for the project to proceed.
But the deal was complicated, and nearly scuttled, by haggling over how much the developers – Liberty Group, of South Portland, and The Procaccianti Group, a Rhode Island development firm – should pay for traffic and other public improvements beyond the immediate vicinity of their project.
The debate highlights what City Councilor Jim Cloutier, chair of the council’s Community Development Committee, called an “untidy” and “potentially unfair” process. Harold Pachios, the attorney representing the developers, called the zoning debate “a political process,” but said that on balance, he was satisfied with the outcome.
“We paid more than we wanted to pay, and we’re not happy about it,” Pachios said. “But both sides compromised and tried to reach a solution the other side could live with.”
City planning staff originally suggested that the development team, called PMEI Limited Partnership, contribute $200,000 for off-site improvements. But when the developers opened their e-mails the morning of the council meeting, they found a message from the city requesting $500,000 for off-site work. “We didn’t like that,” Pachios said, with some understatement.
The wheeling-and-dealing that followed at that evening’s meeting was remarkable — more akin to a game of high-stakes poker than a dry discussion of traffic impacts and street lighting costs, which were never specifically addressed.
Pachios, an eloquent speaker and canny negotiator, stressed that unlike the hotel and condo complex being developed on the eastern waterfront by Riverwalk LLC, PMEI is not seeking a property tax break for its project. In addition to the jobs the development will create, he said the complex will generate $1.1 million in annual property tax revenue for the city.
Pachios also said PMEI has responded to concerns about the project’s design raised by city planners and residents, and has agreed to spend over $5 million more than originally anticipated to address those concerns. The project’s total cost will exceed $110 million.
“All we’re asking for is fairness,” Pachios told councilors. “This developer is trying to do the right thing, but please don’t hammer them.”
Tom Niles, executive vice president of the Procaccianti Group, told councilors the additional $300,000 for off-site improvements could kill the deal, but added that since the request for more funds had come so late in the process, he had not had a chance to discuss it with the bankers and investors financing the project.
City Councilor Peter O’Donnell suggested the matter be tabled until the council’s first meeting in October to give both sides more time to assess the off-site cost figures. But Niles said PMEI is scheduled to close its deal with Tyson Foods Inc., which owns the property, on Sept. 26, and having twice delayed that deal already, another extension could doom it. O’Donnell then withdrew his motion to postpone a vote.
In the end, after much whispered deliberation between councilors and Pachios both inside and outside Council Chambers, it was agreed that the developer will pay $400,000 toward off-site improvements. (At one point, Councilor Cheryl Leeman launched into an extended soliloquy about the project’s merits, and ended by saying she hoped her remarks had given the councilors whispering across the room enough time to come up with a new figure.)
Mayor Jill Duson cast the lone vote against the agreement, citing discomfort with the process. “[It] feels like highway robbery to me,” she said. Cloutier said at the meeting that he was also uncomfortable with the “‘Let’s Make a Deal’ mentality” at play, and was among the councilors calling for a more quantitative assessment of public improvement costs in the future.
Councilor Karen Geraghty, who’d previously questioned the off-site cost estimates, left the meeting for unknown reasons before the debate began. She could not be reached for comment before this article was posted.
Of the $400,000 PMEI will contribute, $175, 000 will go towards sidewalk improvements near, but not adjacent to the site; $150,000 will go toward traffic improvements on the peninsula; and $75,000 will be set aside for public art projects in the area. This last element was introduced after a member of the public suggested PMEI help foster the “creative economy” in Portland. That funding replaces $100,000 originally earmarked for odor mitigation at the India Street sewage pumping station a block away from the site.
Shortly before last night’s debate began, councilors were given a list of public improvements slated for the eastern waterfront area. Consisting mostly of curb and sidewalk replacement projects, the list includes over $1.8 million worth of work.
The Westin project now goes back to the Planning Board for site plan approval, where some elements may be tweaked, but major changes are not anticipated.