Getting the Institutional Creeps

photo/Jake MacGillivary
photo/Jake MacGillivary

Getting the Institutional Creeps
Maine Med’s neighbors push back

By Emily Guerin

It’s called institutional creep, the tendency of large schools, hospitals and other nonprofits to expand into the neighborhoods around them, turning homes into offices and parking lots. The growth happens slowly — it creeps along — consuming one property at a time over the course of many years. If residents aren’t vigilant, they may come to realize too late that their once quiet and cohesive neighborhood has become more like a downtown business district — burdened with heavy traffic and parking problems, blighted by litter and graffiti, home to a part-time population of workers and visitors.

Residents of Portland’s West End have been getting the institutional creeps for decades. Waynflete School’s expansion plans have been repeatedly slowed or stymied by neighbors. Last month, opponents persuaded the City Council to reverse a ruling by the Planning Board that would have allowed Waynflete to convert four more houses in the area to non-residential uses.

Ten years ago, neighborhood opposition to Mercy Hospital’s proposed expansion in the West End put pressure on hospital officials to scrap those plans and build a new campus along the Fore River, instead.

But Waynflete’s and Mercy’s combined growth pales in comparison to that of the institution one neighbor called “the biggest kid on the block”: Maine Medical Center.

Maine Med is the largest hospital in northern New England. It has over 600 beds and occupies approximately 1.5 million square feet of space in the West End. (Maine Med also has a campus on Brighton Avenue, a research institute and surgery center in Scarborough, and numerous other medical facilities throughout southern Maine.)

The growth this private, non-profit corporation has undertaken over the past 30 years has redrawn Portland’s skyline and radically reshaped the landscape in the section of town it dominates.

Scores of homes have been demolished or converted into medical offices over the years. Maine Med’s most recent growth spurt essentially consumed a city block. The $170 million Charles Street Expansion Project — named in recognition of the street it erased from the map — included construction of the East Tower, which houses the hospital’s new birthing center and emergency department, and a 480-space parking garage.

“The parking garage foundation contains enough concrete to construct 14 average-sized homes,” Maine Med boasts on its Web site, which goes on to say that the new utility plant built as part of the project “will produce enough air conditioning to cool down the equivalent of 800 average-sized homes on a hot, summer day.”

Neighbors who’ve seen homes torn down to make room for Maine Med’s huge additions, or whose own “average-sized” homes now sit in the shadow of these structures, are understandably less than impressed.

In response to Maine Med’s unprecedented growth, city officials have taken unprecedented steps to rein the hospital in and make it a better neighbor.

The zoning agreement approved in 2005 that allowed the Charles Street project to proceed required Maine Med to pony up $800,000 for “public improvements” in the area, plus pay over $300,000 into the city’s housing replacement fund to help compensate for the loss of units razed to make way for the expansion. Maine Med was also obligated to sell nine other properties it owned in the neighborhood so they could return to residential use.

Most significantly, the agreement restricts Maine Med’s future growth in the West End to property it owned at the time, and stipulates that hospital officials hold quarterly meetings with a “neighborhood council” to address residents’ concerns.

The minutes of those council meetings show that Maine Med had been slow to acknowledge problems brought to its attention by neighbors, responding in some cases only after being compelled to do so by neighborhood activism. And hospital officials have been particularly lax in addressing issues raised by residents who live behind the complex, in the vicinity of St. John and Valley streets — a markedly less affluent area than the West End and Western Prom, both of which are represented by well established neighborhood associations.

Though neighbors say their relationship with Maine Med has improved in recent months as construction of the Charles Street project has wound down, significant disagreements persist, as does the tension and apprehension with which residents view the hospital. Representatives of the recently formed St. John Valley Neighborhood Association were either hesitant or unwilling to discuss their dealings with Maine Med, due to concern their comments will make the situation worse.

Neighbors have made some progress keeping Maine Med accountable and its growth in check, but they also know that doing so is an ongoing task. Let your guard down for even a couple months and another chunk of your neighborhood can get creepy.

photo/Emily Guerin
photo/Emily Guerin

“Why bother?”

When the neighborhood council began convening four years ago, meeting minutes reflect that the gatherings were largely one-sided, consisting almost entirely of construction updates presented by hospital representatives.

“In the beginning, we didn’t understand what our role was,” said Elizabeth Begin, who represented the Western Prom Neighborhood Association on the council. “The hospital would give reports, then it was over. It was their agenda, their cookies, and their reports.”

The meeting format frustrated Begin and Moses Sabina, who’d recently purchased and moved into a three-unit property on Gilman Street, behind the hospital. “We’d have these meetings and then nothing would happen,” Begin said. “After a year of that, Moses and I sat down and said, ‘Why bother?’”

In September 2008, two years after the meetings began, Begin and Sabina decided to “make some waves” on the council, as Begin put it. “The current minutes don’t accurately depict the meeting,” Sabina said at the time (according to the minutes). Asked by The Bollard what he meant by this, Sabina declined to elaborate, but the minutes show that the pair pushed to have the sessions recorded and to have each side’s representatives confirm the accuracy of the minutes.

Furthermore, Begin and Sabina wanted neighbors’ requests to not only be discussed, but also designated as “action items” in order to keep better track of which problems were being addressed and which were being ignored.

Mike Ryan, Maine Med’s vice president for operations, said he welcomed the changes to the meeting format, but had not seen a need for improvement. “I don’t know why there weren’t more questions early on,” he said. “I’m happy that other topics have come forward.”

Not all of the neighborhood representatives were as frustrated by the early meetings as Begin and Sabina were. West End Neighborhood Association member Penny Stevens said residents always had “a chance to put things on the agenda,” and that the hospital representatives “have been very good listeners.”

“I think a corporation like that can move very slowly, and that has not been my experience,” she added.

Stevens cited a complaint raised during the March 2006 meeting about increased shuttle bus traffic on West Street. The hospital “responded really well,” she said, and dispersed the bus routes along multiple streets in the neighborhood that summer.

But this change was made after a West Street resident brought a petition signed by 15 of her neighbors to the June council meeting demanding Maine Med “relieve West Street of the ‘unwelcome burden’” the increased traffic created, according to the minutes.

Sabina, who commented on his dealings with the hospital on condition The Bollard submit all questions via e-mail, said he had been surprised the West End Neighborhood Association resorted to a petition so early in the process. “I was impressed that they put it together so quickly, and that it was the way they first presented the issue to Maine Med,” he wrote. “I think they had learned from their experience dealing with Maine Med.”

When he moved to Gilman Street in 2005, Sabina — who co-owns the West End eatery Hot Suppa! with his brother, Alec — didn’t know the hospital was about to begin a major construction project. At the time, there was no neighborhood association representing the severed section of town between Maine Med’s campus and Interstate 295. The area’s defining features include the Greyhound bus station and Portland METRO bus hub,  a strip of fast-food joints and ethnic markets, a dusty dog park and the county jail.

Sabina felt that his early concerns were taken lightly compared to those raised by residents on the other side of the hospital. Stevens and other council members also said they felt Maine Med was more responsive to representatives from the West End and Western Prom (were Ryan, the hospital executive, lives), than to residents of the St. John Valley neighborhood.

“If someone writes graffiti by the front door, it’s more likely to get cleaned up than in the back, by the incinerator,” Begin said.

“I think [hospital officials] didn’t have the awareness in the beginning,” said Stevens. “Perhaps they really did think of that as the back yard, and we were the front yard.”

Among the issues in Maine Med’s “front yard” is the state of a vacant carriage house on Chadwick Street. The hospital-owned property “looks awful,” Begin said. “There are broken bricks, asphalt and shutters, and it needs painting and overall attention,” Western Prom resident Steve Kolkhorst complained during the council meeting last December. Ryan agreed to create a plan to clean up the garage, according to the minutes.

The fate of the nine West End properties Maine Med was obligated to sell is also a point of contention. The 2005 zoning agreement states that Maine Med must divest itself of the properties in order to “enable others to return them to residential use.” But to the neighbors’ frustration, that doesn’t necessarily mean people will live in them again.

Most of the holdings have been sold, but four properties on Bramhall Street, at least two of which are vacant office buildings, have not. The deadline for Maine Med to sell them passed last month, but the hospital was recently granted a six-month extension.

Ryan said that although “people had it in their minds these are going to be residential,” Maine Med is not required to sell the Bramhall properties to a new owner who will return them to residential use, and city zoning administrator Marge Schmuckel agrees. The dispute is still simmering, and could boil over depending what the properties’ next owners decide to do.

photo/Emily Guerin
photo/Emily Guerin

The “back yard”

When the St. John Valley Neighborhood Association was formed in the summer of 2008, one of the first things it did was examine the Charles Street project zoning agreement between the city and Maine Med. In doing so,  neighbors discovered what they felt was a blatant violation.

Maine Med owns the entire block bounded by Congress, Gilman, Valley and A streets. One of the parcels in this block was the former home of the Portland Eagles Club (the fraternal organization had since relocated to a larger building on St. John Street). The zoning agreement required Maine Med to demolish the old clubhouse and “loam and seed” its footprint. But after demolition, the lot had been used for several years as a lay-down area for construction equipment.

Saint John Valley resident Tim McNamara first raised concerns about the Eagle Club lot and a hospital-owned site across the street at the September 2008 council meeting. It was designated an “action item,” but no action was taken.

McNamara, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, brought the issue up again at the next meeting three months later, noting that mesh fencing at the site was torn and graffiti was sprouting.

McNamara and Sabina subsequently met with Ryan and project manager Hank Dunn. The minutes of the March 2009 council meeting state that Ryan “agreed to have the lots cleaned up.” But disagreement over the storage of construction equipment persisted, with McNamara pointing out that the zoning agreement “does not explicitly state” that the Eagles Club lot can be used for that purpose, and Dunn bluntly replying that Maine Med “can use its property,” as his response was recorded in the minutes.

“It comes down to a question of semantics,” Sabina told The Bollard via e-mail. “Maine Med interpreted that there could be a passage of time between demolishing the Eagles Club and loaming and seeding, and we read that it should have been immediate.”

“People who were new to the neighborhood council were of the opinion that the language in the contract zone said the lot was going to be all green space, which is not what it said,” said Ryan. Neighbors often “invest their own desires into the words that they see,” he added. “It’s hard to create a document that’s faultless.”

As more time passed last year with no improvement to the site, McNamara and Sabina became increasingly agitated, writing letters to city councilors and planning staff to protest the area’s use and condition. “Ultimately we found that [Maine Med officials] were given verbal permission from the city planning staff” to use the area for construction storage, said Sabina.

At last June’s meeting, Maine Med agreed to have the lot cleaned out and the building site loamed and seeded by Sept. 15. But McNamara had grown tired to hearing such empty promises. In July, he took matters into his own hands.

McNamara recorded video of the Eagles Club lot, narrating problems as he filmed: the crumbling retaining wall, ripped tarps, graffiti on the fence. Then he posted it on YouTube and put up flyers around the neighborhood that called Maine Med “a bad neighbor” and encouraged residents to view the video.

Over 400 did, including Ryan.

According to Begin, the Western Prom resident, the video was a turning point. “Ever since then, there’s been a whole new tracking record, especially for graffiti,” she said.

“They fixed everything that was in the video very quickly,” said Sabina — everything, that is, except the required loaming and seeding. After consulting with the city, Maine Med created a revised plan for the parcel. Rather than grow grass on the former building site, the Eagles Club footprint has been paved and is now being used for parking. Maine Med landscaped around the new parking lot and plans to install a fence and plant seeds this spring.

Ryan was unhappy about the negative attention the video generated and McNamara’s in-your-face approach.
“I think Tim made his point,” he said. “We disagree about whether it was the appropriate thing to do.”

St. John Valley residents aren’t convinced that turning the Eagles Club parcel into another parking lot is the appropriate thing to do, but they’re finished fighting over it.

“If you look around now, there’s no graffiti,” said Sabina. “The Eagles lot issue has been concluded. A great deal of effort has gone into understanding each other to get to this point.”

Ryan agreed that communication has improved since construction ended. “I feel very good with the relationship now,” he said.

The former Eagles Club lot today. photo/Emily Guerin
The former Eagles Club lot today. photo/Emily Guerin

Not so fast

Indeed, by this past fall, Maine Med was feeling chummy enough with the neighborhood groups to inform them of plans to buy property on lower Congress Street formerly occupied by the Sportsman’s Grill.

“The property has been marketed to us many times as a potential site for future development,” Ryan said, and the hospital’s board of trustees authorized the purchase of the land.

Sabina, however, had read the 2005 zoning agreement that limits Maine Med’s expansion to land it owned at the time. He protested, and the city backed him up. Planning and development director Penny Littell said Maine Med could buy the old Sportsman’s site and lease it to another party, but could not use the lot itself.

Maine Med decided to withdraw its bid.

The St. John Valley neighborhood group is coming into its own, gaining the clout — and the headaches — more established associations have had for years.

A case in point: street lighting.

The newly formed association tried to get the city and Central Maine Power to turn three street lights back on at the corner of Valley and Congress. Association members were shocked to learn from the power company that the lights had been out for 25 years — though the city was apparently still paying for the electricity to power them.

After five months of effort, the lights were fixed — and a neighbor promptly complained that they made it too bright at night to sleep.

In our one brief phone conversation, Sabina was modest about his neighborhood’s progress keeping Maine Med in check. “I think they do consider us differently now,” he said.

“Sometimes you need to be willing to compromise, other times, prepared to fight,” Sabina continued. “You need to communicate well and with the right people; they need to know that you care and that you’re not going away.”

Emily Guerin writes the monthly That’s My Dump! feature for The Bollard, which will return next month. Prior to joining The Bollard late last year, advertising representative Carrie Losneck volunteered as secretary of the St. John Valley Neighborhood Association, a post she no longer holds. Losneck was not involved in the writing or research of this story.

%d bloggers like this: