Briefs from September and October 2007
By Chris Busby
Munjoy Hill meltdown
A nasty internal dispute has rocked the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organizaton, leading to the resignation of its president, vice president, and several board members. The diminished group held its quarterly meeting yesterday, and plans to elect interim officers next month, but the fight has caused deep divisions among key members of one of the city’s oldest and most influential neighborhood associations.
The trouble started last July, when a bracketed paragraph was inserted in an article in the monthly community newspaper, the Munjoy Hill Observer, shortly before the issue went to press. The article concerned the city’s decision to deny an application by the state to relocate a probation and parole office on Congress Street to Washington Avenue.
Chris Bruni, who owns a pottery studio and several residential properties in the area, was a vocal opponent of the office’s relocation. “That office would be a funnel for criminals,” he was quoted as having said in the article. “We have enough on the Hill and we don’t need them from all over Portland.”
Bruni’s sentiment prompted two active MHNO members, Ed Democracy and Heather Curtis, to add the bracketed paragraph. The couple are the principal organizers of the Portland Tenants Union (PTU), a small non-profit that advocates for renters’ rights. The paragraph claims that the PTU has received more health and safety complaints from tenants of Bruni’s buildings “than from tenants of any other Hill landlord.”
Democracy said the paragraph was supposed to be “an editorial note” placed at the end of the article, but that the volunteer layout person mistakenly placed it right after the first sentence. He attributed the error to the nature of community papers run on a shoestring budget by volunteers. The insertion reflects “a neighborhood newspaper trying to do the best they can to provide the neighborhood with fair and balanced information.”
Bruni didn’t see it that way, and threatened to sue for slander, though some board members say all he really wanted was an apology.
The incident set off weeks of tense meetings, angry e-mails, and ugly confrontations among MHNO board members. Some felt the evidence Curtis and Democracy produced to back up their charge against Bruni was insignificant – things like loose shingles and a leaky toilet – and objected to its insertion in the first place. The couple stand by their claim.
The dispute was first reported by the West End News.
In a Sept. 30 letter announcing their resignation, MHNO President Colleen Bedard and Vice President Markos Miller wrote, “efforts by members of the board to raise their concerns and to seek to resolve this matter were met by behaviors not appropriate for a public, volunteer-based, neighborhood organization. A small group of board members and a member of the organization chose to use inflammatory remarks, crude profanities, hostility, and threats towards those acting to resolve the incident with the Observer.”
A brief retraction appeared on the front page of the September issue, but a more detailed letter of apology and explanation, inserted into the papers shortly before that issue was distributed, was removed from many copies by Democracy and at least one other ally in the organization. Miller and Democracy differ as to whether the letter was properly approved by the board.
Bedard could not be reached for comment. Miller, clearly weary of the whole affair, said he’d simply grown tired of wrangling with Democracy, Curtis, and board member Randee Bucknell over this and other organizational issues during the past couple years. He expressed hope the MHNO will be able to continue its work after a cooling-off period, but fears for its long-term future given the divisiveness still plaguing the organization.
Democracy said he’s optimistic. “This organization is too important to this neighborhood… Failure’s not an option. The hounds of hell seem to be nipping at our heels, but what doesn’t kill an organization only makes it stronger.”
Bruni is just disgusted. Past president Bedard “did her part” to address his concerns, he said, but the MHNO as a whole is a lost cause. “They’re crazy,” said Bruni. “It’s a bad organization… I’ll never read the [Observer] again. I don’t think it represents the neighborhood.”
October 11, 2007
Portland Pie to go
Following complaints about their pizza oven’s ventilation and a legal dispute with their landlord, the owners of Portland Pie have decided to move their Portland location a couple blocks away, to a building they recently bought at 51 York Street. The new location is expected to open at the end of November.
Pizzeria owners Stephen Freese and Nathaniel Getchell have been battling landlord/developer Kerry Anderson for several months. Anderson, who owns the Fore Street building Portland Pie occupies, claims soot from the pizza oven has been wafting into offices above the eatery, causing property damage and health problems. Freese and Getchell dispute this, and have taken legal action against Anderson based on the soot claim, a spat over parking and related issues.
It’s unclear whether the forthcoming relocation will end the legal dispute. The pair’s attorney, Tim Bryant, did not return a call seeking comment this week. Anderson’s attorney, Ted Small, declined to comment.
Jodie Lapchick, the founder of Lapchick Creative, a marketing and advertising firm located above Portland Pie’s future home, is looking forward to having the pizzeria downstairs, and is cautiously optimistic that she won’t experience the same problems office workers above Portland Pie’s Fore Street location claim to have suffered.
“I can’t imagine that now that they have a chance to do all the ventilation from scratch that they wouldn’t do it right,” Lapchick said. But she added that if problems do arise, “they can’t get kicked out – they own the building.”
October 2, 2007
Council delays action on pier/megaberth
At its meeting last night, the Portland City Council postponed action on adding construction of a “megaberth” at Ocean Gateway to private redevelopment of the adjacent Maine State Pier. The matter will be taken up again at the Council’s Oct. 15 meeting, and the public will have an opportunity to comment on any additional plans submitted by the two would-be developers, Ocean Properties and The Olympia Companies.
It’s still unclear to what extent Ocean Gateway can be privately operated. The public cruise ship and ferry terminal is being built with city, state and federal funds. The use of tax-exempt bonds restricts the extent to which private companies can profit from public infrastructure.
In a Sept. 28 memo, city attorney Mary Costigan said talks with Maine Department of Transportation officials had yielded some “very preliminary information” about the restrictions. That information is “subject to change,” she wrote, pending any contractual agreement with a private operator “and the reaction to those arrangements by state and federal authorities.”
Both Olympia and Ocean Properties have expressed interest in building the megaberth and operating Ocean Gateway in addition to the publicly owned Maine State Pier. Neither Ocean Gateway nor its megaberth were included in the official Request for Proposals (RFP) the city issued last fall for redevelopment of the Maine State Pier.
At a workshop session last week, councilors asked both teams to detail what level of investment they would be willing to make to build the megaberth, and to describe how operation of the long dock at Ocean Gateway would affect their plans for the pier.
Both developers responded by reiterating their interest in building the berth, but provided few additional details, citing the lack of time provided to reconfigure their plans and the host of as-yet-unresolved issues associated with the berth’s construction and operation.
Ocean Properties wrote that the megaberth may prompt them to scrap plans to build a separate dock for tug boats, since tugs could use the megaberth instead, or could continue to dock at the Maine State Pier. Otherwise, they said the addition of the berth would not substantially change their latest proposal for the pier.
Olympia requested two additional weeks to address the megaberth’s inclusion, and suggested that their plan for the pier could change substantially if the berth is built at Ocean Gateway. For example, they noted that using Ocean Gateway as the primary berth for cruise ships could significantly reduce the need to create an elaborate security system for cruise visits at the Maine State Pier, potentially enhancing public access to the pier during the cruise season.
If either developer were to build the $6 million megaberth at Ocean Gateway, it’s expected they would want to operate Ocean Gateway and collect berthing fees and other revenue there to help offset the construction cost.
Costigan wrote that based on her initial talks with state officials, she believes the city can contract with a private company to manage and operate Ocean Gateway. However, a private operator would be required to run it as a public facility. There could be no exclusive agreements for docking there, and the private operator would be required to offer the “same, competitive rates” to all potential users.
If the megaberth portion of Ocean Gateway was built with private capital, it would not be subject to those restrictions, Costigan wrote.
September 19, 2007
Florence House approved
At its Monday night meeting, the Portland City Council approved a conditional zoning agreement that will allow construction of a new women’s shelter and affordable housing complex on Valley Street, in Portland’s West End. Called Florence House, the three-story building will have 25 efficiency apartments, 15 “safe haven” units, between 10 and 25 shelter beds and related services for homeless women.
The local non-profit agency Avesta Housing has partnered with social-services provider Preble Street Resource Center to operate Florence House. The new shelter and apartments will partially meet the need created when the YWCA closed its women’s shelter and housing facility on Spring Street last year.
About a dozen residents spoke out against the project, citing concerns about safety and the project’s impact on property values and peace and quiet in the neighborhood. Several social service providers and a handful of others spoke in favor of the project, citing the ongoing need for emergency shelter for women and the steps – like increased security – being taken to address potential quality of life issues associated with the shelter.
Florence House is expected to open next year.
September 6, 2007
The Empire strikes back
After a protracted struggle over city zoning and a management shake-up, the downtown building at the corner of Congress Street and Forest Avenue is finally on its way to becoming a restaurant and live music venue. Councilors unanimously approved liquor and entertainment licenses last night for Empire Dine & Dance. The business is expected to open by the end of this month in the space formerly occupied by the dive bar Whits End.
That location was previously planned to be the site of The Skinny, the reincarnation of the bar and music venue that closed a few blocks up Congress Street several years ago. Skinny proprietor Johnny Lomba is no longer involved in the enterprise. His former business partner, Todd Doyle (the veteran profiled in our summer print magazine), is still part of the business, as is the building’s owner, Bill Umbel.
Empire Dine & Dance will serve “bistro-style fare” and feature mostly acoustic folk, bluegrass and jazz acts, said Umbel. Hiss & Chambers drummer Ryan Dolan is handling the booking. The business is named after a Chinese restaurant and impromptu honky-tonk that occupied the space for decades in the first half of the last century.
There was relatively little debate over the licenses. One Congress Street condo owner said he and all his neighbors are considering leaving due to noise on the sidewalk at night from patrons of The White Heart and Space Gallery. However, his threat (promise?) did not sway councilors, several of whom pointed out that downtown is not supposed to be dead-quiet at night.