For most of the summer and fall, the rotting couches sat on the edge of a weedy lot across from the Shipyard Brewery. If you dared to sit on one, your view would be an expanse of cracked pavement and litter inside a chain-link fence, a bleak block bounded by Middle, Newbury, Hancock and India streets. Behind the furniture stands a sign depicting what the lot is supposed to look like: two large buildings containing over 80 luxury condos with hardwood floors and granite countertops.
Known as the Bay House, the development was a casualty of the recession. Proposed back in 2005, it never got off the ground. The developers haven’t given up — they were still trying to arrange financing last month — but in the meantime, neighbors are struggling to cope with the huge vacant lot in their backyards.
Before the weeds and the impromptu living room sprouted there, the block was home to the Village Cafe, an iconic Italian restaurant owned by the Reali family. The eatery opened in 1936 and stayed in the family for nearly 70 years. The need for expensive renovations and the high cost of heating the 550-seat restaurant compelled the Realis to sell. “The days of large restaurants — with over 500 seats — are gone by,” John Reali told The Bollard in the summer of 2006. “The chains are coming into town. They seat 150 or 180.”
A Boston-based development group bought the property for $3 million in 2007, and demolished the Village Cafe in June of 2008. Construction was expected to begin at the end of that summer, but the project’s investors got cold feet. The developers have been trying to scare up new financing ever since.
In the years following the Village’s demise, the area around it declined. “It looks worse than it did five years ago,” said Joe Malone, a commercial real estate broker whose company handled the sale of the Village Cafe. “Nobody bought it just to make it look desolate and barren, but that’s what happened,” he said.
Malone organized the India Street Neighborhood Association earlier this year to address the area’s problems. He’s asked the Bay House developers to clean up the site several times since last summer, and they have made some effort to oblige. The furniture is gone, and every once in a while someone shows up to whack the weeds back. But residents are still frustrated by the appearance of the empty lot.
“The chain-link fence routine is getting pretty old,” said Newbury Street resident Allison Brown. Even though Brown’s home is surrounded by parking lots, she’d like to see the former Village Cafe site used for parking, even temporarily, just so she doesn’t have to look at the empty lot anymore.
That’s not likely to happen. Malone said the city would require the site’s owners to apply for re-zoning permits and properly pave the area, a pricey undertaking for a property that could still be developed. “So they’re just going to let it sit with a chain link fence around it,” Malone said. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Despite the long delay and financial setbacks, the developers are optimistic the condos will be built. “Occupancy in Fall 2011!” declares the project’s Web site, bayhouseportland.com. Gail Landry of Town & Shore Associates, the Portland luxury real estate firm that is selling the Bay House condos, said financing is “imminent,” but was vague when asked when construction might begin. “It’s going to be enormously successful and transform Portland and the way people live,” Landry said. “The project will create a neighborhood in itself.”
The Bay House’s size upset some neighbors back when it was proposed five years ago. They thought it would be too big. But after living with a vacant lot, litter and dumped furniture for nearly three years, many now feel that any development is better than none at all.
— Emily Guerin