Briefs from January through April 2008
By Chris Busby
April 28, 2008
Lee Urban leaving City Hall
Portland’s Director of Planning and Urban Development, Lee Urban, is retiring after nine years at City Hall to care for his wife, who is battling a serious illness.
Urban’s departure comes as the city faces exceedingly difficult economic times. Portland’s economic situation has “probably been worse,” Urban said, “but I can’t remember it in my time, and I’ve been here since 1946.”
City officials can’t do much to turn things around, he said, especially in tight budget years like this one. “We simply have to stick to our knitting, do what we do best, focus on that and make sure we prioritize what we can do with the resources we have. And it will get better, as long as we don’t give up.”
Earlier this year, City Manager Joe Gray announced plans to change the way the city coordinates planning and economic development. The two will no longer share office space and have a common department head. Instead, the Economic Development Division will be part of the City Manager’s Office, and the city will hire a new Director of Economic Development to lead the division. A new Director of Planning will oversee that department on a different floor of City Hall.
Urban isn’t convinced the restructuring is a good idea, but said “it’s worth trying.” He stressed that the city’s planning and economic development efforts need to intersect – at least to some extent. Some city councilors have expressed concern that the two functions have been too intertwined in recent years, to the detriment of the planning process.
“Planning without development is an academic exercise,” said Urban. “Similarly, development without planning would be a disaster.” He cautioned that going forward under the new system, “one needs to watch carefully how the dynamics might change if economic development moves further away from the ability to intersect easily with planning.”
“The City has been very lucky to have Lee advocating for its future, whether that is developing Bayside or looking at creative – even unorthodox – [punctuation added] solutions that have helped bring Portland into the next century,” Gray said in a press release today. “His work and commitment to advancing City neighborhoods will last for generations…. Lee is one of Portland’s greatest unsung heroes and is deserving of our praise.”
“I have done nothing,” Urban said self-deprecatingly, referring to his work fostering Bayside’s rebirth. “What I’ve really been is part of a team.”
Pingree campaign responds
Democratic Congressional candidate Chellie Pingree’s campaign has responded to questions raised by her latest campaign finance report.
Communications director Willy Ritch again defended Pingree’s integrity in the wake of news that she’s accepted large sums from sources connected to hedge funds and Wall Street law firms keen to influence federal lawmakers.
Asked why the public should believe Pingree is immune to the influence of big money when, according to her, most of her would-be colleagues in Congress are under its sway, Ritch said, “I think all you have to do is look at her record and ask anybody who knows her.”
Ritch pointed to Pingree’s successful push to pass Maine Rx, the controversial prescription drug discount program, when she was majority leader of the State Senate 10 years ago. “When she was in the Legislature and said, ‘Let’s regulate the price of prescription drugs,’ people in her own party said, ‘We can’t do that. We’ll lose campaign contributions [from drug companies],’ and she said, ‘I don’t care.'”
As for Pingree’s connection to Milberg – the troubled financial litigation firm whose employees gave her over $55,000 one day last month – Ritch said she “apparently knows” Matthew Gluck. Gluck is a senior partner whose decision to join Milberg two years ago, just as a big “kickback” scandal was beginning to rock the company, was seen as a positive turn of events for the troubled firm.
Ritch said he hadn’t noticed the Milberg contributions because other campaign workers handle the job of screening donors. “The people in that department want to make sure they understand where the money is coming from,” he said, “that [contributors] aren’t someone you don’t want to take money from.”
The Milberg contributions have not been returned.
This is hardly the first time Pingree has taken flack for her fundraising prowess. It was an issue when she ran unsuccessfully against Republican Sen. Susan Collins in 2002, and again the next year when she began work as president of Common Cause, the government watchdog group that has worked to end big money’s undue influence in politics.
Six years ago, Pingree took heat for reaping over $1 million in so-called “soft money” contributions – unlimited funds from corporations, big unions and rich people given to national party committees that use the cash for “issue” advertising, which critics claim does help individual candidates.
Among her soft-money donors then was S. Donald Sussman, who contributed over $300,000 to national committees associated with Pingree’s campaign, according to the Portland Press Herald.
Sussman and people associated with the hedge fund pioneer’s business interests have contributed over $100,000 to Pingree’s current campaign thus far. And Sussman continues to make news for his huge soft money contributions.
A March 6 article published by the Center for Investigative Reporting and National Public Radio names Sussman as having given $1 million to the Fund for America, a so-called 527 organization run by Democrats and top union officials. The Fund for America recently paid another organization, The Campaign to Defend America, to run ads against Sen. John McCain in Pennsylvania.
April 16, 2008
Bayside condo tower not dead yet
Developer Jeffrey Cohen has been struggling for almost half a decade to get his condominium tower built in Bayside. The Waterview at Bayside would be a 12-story building on the corner of Cumberland and Forest avenues containing 94 luxury condos. Cohen has weathered neighborhood concerns, a lawsuit by the owners of neighboring Back Bay Tower, and crummy economic conditions that show no sign of improving anytime soon.
Last fall, Cohen and a business partner proposed to alter the project by making 40 of the 94 units rental apartments available to tenants with low-to-moderate incomes. Those plans, however, were contingent upon the Maine State Housing Authority approving tax credits for the project. MSHA did not approve that request, so those plans have been scrapped.
Reached by phone today, Cohen said he is reverting to his original vision for the property. He said he has partnered with Ledgewood Construction, the South Portland-based firm that would build the tower, to jointly seek financing for the Waterview.
Cohen acknowledged that this is not a great time to seek financing for a project of this size, but hopes to convince a lender that the timing makes sense. “If we were able to start construction by August, we’d be finished a year-and-a-half later or so,” he said. “That’s a great time to be coming on the market with new condo units.”
The partnership with Ledgewood “puts us in a stronger position financially to obtain financing,” Cohen said.
“We haven’t given up,” he added. “I think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I just hope it’s not the train.”
In related news, Cohen said he is finalizing the sale of the Gateway Garage on High Street to a group of investors from New York. He will retain an option to lease parking in the garage if and when the Waterview is built.
And Cohen said construction has begun on three office condominium units on Casco Street, in downtown Portland. Those units should be ready for occupancy this summer or fall, he said.
April 10, 2008
Demonized councilors blink over school vote
In a press release sent late this afternoon, Portland Mayor Ed Suslovic and Councilors Kevin Donoghue and Dave Marshall announced they are dropping their opposition to a public vote on bonding to build a new elementary school on Ocean Avenue. The vote is expected to be held June 10.
The mayor and councilors have been subjected to intense pressure to change their minds since their minority vote last Monday night nixed an order to have the public weigh in on whether to borrow nearly $20 million for construction of a new elementary school near Back Cove. The state has pledged to reimburse the city for the cost of the borrowing, but the three opponents said Portland cannot afford all the additional costs the project will eventually entail.
Suslovic, Donoghue and Marshall also said the school department should develop a comprehensive plan for its elementary schools before committing to a new one. The statement said the three met with school board members today and were assured they are “equally committed to completing an elementary facilities plan in the very near future.” It’s unclear if the plan will be finished before the vote.
Last Monday’s vote will be formally reconsidered at the council’s April 28 meeting.
“As Mayor, I regret that the debate became heated,” Suslovic said in the statement. “Whenever the City has to deal with issues of this magnitude, such as closing a school or relocating students, emotions can run high for all involved, but I am confident of our ability to move forward on the many important issues ahead of us.”
The fracas that followed Monday’s vote included a deluge of calls and e-mails to the mayor and two councilors (many of them quite pointed and profane, according to associates), organized efforts by other councilors to encourage that deluge, and two hastily called press conferences held by both sides last night at City Hall.
April 8, 2008
City approves lease for would-be D-League team
The Portland City Council unanimously approved lease terms at the Portland Expo for the group of investors hoping to start a minor-league basketball team here. [See “Backdoor pass,” Feb. 24, 2008, in News.] The question now is whether NBA officials will grant the investment group a franchise and create enough teams on the East Coast to make a Portland team viable.
Those hurdles have yet to be cleared, though an announcement is expected soon – a factor that gave the lease talks a sense of urgency that initially rankled some city officials.
The five-year lease, which contains an option to renew for another half-decade, is essentially a break-even deal for the city, according to Portland officials. After staffing and supply costs are covered, the team would get all concession and parking revenues. It will also be allowed to sell advertising in the public facility used by school athletic programs, though the city retains the authority to approve or reject ads based on their content, size or location.
Rent for the first three seasons, beginning in the fall of 2009, would be $2,100 per game. It would increase by $100 in 2012, 2014 and 2017, and an additional 50-cent per-ticket surcharge would kick in beginning in 2014 if certain seasonal attendance levels are met.
Among the perks the city gets in return are about $250,000 worth of improvements to the Expo, including a new basketball court and additional seating.
Other than a couple track meets – which city officials said can be rescheduled or moved with minimal inconvenience – no scholastic sporting events would be disrupted by the team’s home games.
County officials said the Portland Pirates minor-league hockey team has a similar break-even arrangement to use the Civic Center. Though the county collects concession revenue under the current lease, the higher cost of hosting hockey, compared to basketball, makes that arrangement sensible, said Civic Center general manager Steve Crane.
March 24, 2008
County tables skyscraper plans
Plans to build a 12-story office tower next to the Cumberland County courthouse in Portland are now “off the table,” according to Assistant County Manager Bill Whitten. Developers Joe and Greg Boulos had hoped to secure a major tenant for the property, the law firm Pierce Atwood, in order to make the public-private deal work, but Whitten wrote in a March 21 weekly e-mail update that the tenant has decided not to move into the proposed building.
The skyscraper – envisioned as seven floors of office space atop five levels of parking – would have included offices for the district attorney’s operations and other county functions, which are said to be outgrowing facilities in the courthouse. It’s unclear how the county will proceed – Whitten himself was not sure.
The project faced a host of complicated issues when it was unveiled late last year. For example, it involved land sales or transfers between the county, the city and Boulos; a portion of adjacent Lincoln Park would have been used for traffic circulation; and its proposed height, at upwards of 180 feet, is about three times the limit set by city zoning.
“The ‘new building’ is on hold for the moment, until a new direction can be determined,” Whitten wrote.
February 6, 2008
Having your Cake and Digger’s/Liquid Blue, too
A new bar and dance club has been licensed to take over the adjoining spaces on Fore Street formerly occupied by Digger’s/Liquid Blue, and the same proprietor is also taking over Cake, the short-lived restaurant and dance club nearby on Wharf Street.
Both establishments were previously owned by Tom Manning, whose request to renew liquor and entertainment licenses for the Fore Street bar/club was denied by the Portland City Council last year due to concerns about fights there, including one involving Manning himself.
Ryan Byther, of Gorham, got city approval Monday to open the Oktoberfest International Tap House in the Digger’s space. The dance club next door will be called Club Onyx, and will offer entertainment similar to what Liquid Blue had, DJs and a weekly comedy night, as well as live bands.
The bar on the first floor will be called Prost (“Cheers,” in German) Pub. Prost Pub will have 100 taps lined against one wall, and over 300 different foreign and domestic brews in total. A game room upstairs will have pool, foosball and such.
Byther said the tap house will serve “upscale pub food,” and the interior is undergoing a major facelift “to get rid of that dive bar atmosphere.” He hopes to open the doors March 1.
Meanwhile, work is underway on the Cobblestone Grill, which Byther hopes to open later in March. Unlike Cake, the Cobblestone Grill will not double as a dance club. It will offer “five-star-style dining,” with tables throughout the space, he said, and no entertainment.
Byther’s acquisitions largely settle the questions raised by the recent closure of several bars and clubs in the area [See “Wharf Street shakeup,” Jan. 19, in Gossip.] The fate of The Iguana is still unknown, though sources say it will likely be a restaurant – perhaps a pizzeria – offering takeout.
In addition to Byther’s tap house, a new place called the Novare Res Bier Café is slated to open a couple block up the street (see item below). Though there’ll surely be some overlap, the two establishments combined promise to offer over 400 varieties of beer. That’d be a pretty short pub crawl.
January 27, 2008
New “beer café,” Grill Room on tap in Old Port
Two new dining and drinking establishments are slated to open in the Old Port later this year, and a new eatery may soon take over the space in Longfellow Square formerly occupied by Uffa.
Chef Harding Lee Smith, who opened The Front Room atop Munjoy Hill two years ago, is taking over Natasha’s, the Exchange Street restaurant next to Tommy’s Park. The new venture is a steakhouse called The Grill Room. In license documents submitted to the city, Smith said The Grill Room is expected to open March 1. The Front Room will continue to operate as before.
Across Middle Street, Eric Michaud, of Yarmouth, plans to open an upscale beer garden of sorts next to the former location of The Pavilion, where Black Tie Restaurant used to be. The business is called Novare Res Bier Café – in a letter to the city, Michaud wrote that Novare Res means “to start a revolution” in Latin – and it will have 25 brews on tap and over 100 bottled varieties. There will be no Bud.
“We will not offer any of the large, commercial breweries’ products,” Michaud wrote. Furthermore, patrons at Novare Res “will enjoy a more human atmosphere” than that found in sports bars, “as there will be no wide-screen TV’s projecting the current sports game, pin-ball or video-gambling machines, or eye-sore flashing neon lights promoting a bland, watered-down, mass-produced product.” (Damn, does this guy wanna write for The Bollard or somethin’?) Its targeted opening date is April 1.
Novare Res will have a sizeable outdoor deck, a small tapas menu and mellow, acoustic entertainment (no dancing). And though it’s right next to The Pavilion’s old space, Novare Res’ entrance will be accessed from the Canal Plaza parking lot around back.
That’s an important detail, because the city passed zoning restrictions last year that prohibit new establishments offering both booze and entertainment from opening within 100 feet of another business offering the same. That 100 feet, however, is measured from front door to front door. If Novare Res’ main entrance was on Middle Street, its proximity to The Pavilion would prohibit a future proprietor of that much larger space from offering alcohol and musical entertainment. The Pavilion, which closed last summer, is still vacant.
Last week, the Portland City Council was scheduled to consider liquor and entertainment license requests by Erik Desjarlais, owner of Ladle Soup House on Exchange Street, who wants to open a “French-inspired” restaurant called Evangeline where Uffa operated for many years. That license hearing has been postponed until next month to give councilors an opportunity to review Desjarlais’ criminal record.
Rap sheets produced for the city by the Maine State Bureau of Identification did not indicate that either Desjarlais or partners Claude Sheer and Kathleen Goodwin have any criminal record whatsoever. However, sources say the Portland Police Department has presented additional information warranting a postponement. That information has not been made public yet, but one councilor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it did not contain the type of infractions that would warrant a license denial.
January 15, 2008
Project proposed to replace YWCA housing
Local developers Nathan Szanton and Robert C.S. “Bobby” Monks have unveiled plans for a 43-unit apartment building on Danforth Street intended to replace housing lost when the YWCA’s women’s shelter and housing complex on Spring Street was closed and demolished last year.
The proposed development is part of a deal struck last summer when the Portland Museum of Art bought the YWCA’s building. The city’s so-called housing replacement ordinance required the museum to either build housing units to replace those lost when it demolished the Y, or pay into a city fund reserved for affordable housing projects.
The museum agreed to put $900,000 into an account controlled by the Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA), which held a deed covenant on the Y property. Szanton said MSHA has committed to provide an additional $4.5 million in financing for the Danforth Street project.
Szanton said he and Monks are also seeking $325,000 in federal grant money administered by the city to complete the development, and will seek a conditional rezoning agreement necessary to build the high-density housing project on the site at 53 Danforth St., where a car repair shop, New England Imports, now stands.
The five-story project has four floors of housing atop a ground-floor garage. Of the 43 mostly one-bedroom units, 30 will be reserved for low-income tenants who earn less than 60 percent of the median income in Portland – less than about $21,000 per year, according to U.S. Census figures from 2000. The rent paid by a person whose annual income was $21,000 would be capped at about $525 per month. The other 13 units would be market-rate.
Szanton said a contract zone will be necessary to construct the project as planned because current zoning requires more square feet of space per apartment, and one parking space per unit. The developers plan to provide 40 spaces for the 43-unit building. Szanton said he expects some tenants will not have cars or will take advantage of a rent discount offered to tenants who do not reserve a parking space in the building.
The Portland Planning Board is expected to review the project in the coming months, and the City Council may vote on it in April.
Most councilors reached for comment yesterday had not yet seen the plans, but there are indications the project will not have an easy path to approval.
Councilor Dave Marshall said he was “disappointed” to hear that Szanton and Monks are seeking a contract zone for the development, and questioned whether the 30 sub-market rental units are sufficient to satisfy the need for affordable housing created when the Y closed its doors.
Marshall said the city “underestimated” the number of housing units lost at the Y last year. City attorney Gary Wood and his staff determined that the museum needed to replace 33 units, but others estimated that over 50 units were lost when the building closed. Nightly occupancy had been as high as 68 women.
The housing replacement ordinance has “so many loopholes it makes it possible to get around the intent of replacing housing,” said Marshall. Though he may not oppose this specific project, Marshall said he’s interested in amending the ordinance to “tighten up some of these loopholes.”
Councilor Jill Duson, who chairs the council’s Housing Committee, did not return calls seeking comment.
The site of the Y’s Spring Street women’s shelter is currently being used as a parking lot. Museum officials have yet to announce long-term plans for the property.