That’s My Dump!
Five Year Reunion: 2012-2017
by Chris Busby
When even those who profit by turning apartments into condominiums start complaining about gentrification, you know the situation is getting ridiculous. Such is the scene on Munjoy Hill, where the pace and, in some cases, the sheer bourgeois audacity of condo conversions have compelled residents to demand city officials take action to literally halt the destruction of the old neighborhood.
Last month, the Portland Press Herald ran a front-page article about an effort to impose a six-month moratorium on the demolition of residential buildings on the Hill, where scores of homes dating from the 19th century have been razed to make way for luxury “living spaces” in recent years. Among the concerned neighbors quoted in the story was St. Lawrence Street homeowner Elise Loschiavo, who lives up the block from a house that’s slated to be demolished and replaced by a five-unit condo project.
“[T]he pace is getting faster and buildings are getting bigger,” Loschiavo said of the condo craze. And she would know. It’s not mentioned in the article, but Loschiavo is a broker with Vitalius Real Estate Group who “has developed a specialization in the Portland peninsula condo market and has guided sellers through the condo conversion process,” according to her bio on the firm’s website.
It seems that the size and style of new condo developments are of more concern to some Hill dwellers than the fact such conversions are making the neighborhood unaffordable for working-class families. (Loschiavo’s boss, Brit Vitalius, was a leader of this fall’s campaign to crush the citizen-initiated referendum to reign in rents in Portland; Munjoy Hill is the most expensive neighborhood in the city for renters, the Herald article notes.) The four-story project on St. Lawrence would “dwarf” neighboring buildings, Loschiavo told the paper. “It just feels really strange to people — it’s really out of scale.”
In the summer of 2012 I too was unnerved by a four-story building on this block: the ramshackle, dumpy two-family structure at 9 and 11 St. Lawrence St. I ventured up the crumbling concrete steps into the sideyard, where a treacherous porch led to a black door with a window framed by “brown-stained murder curtains.” A “scowling” gray stuffed bear was strung up in the crux of a crucifix-like laundry post. A dead gray cat was decomposing in the weeds.
The last member of the family that had called this place home had passed away years before I visited, and it sat vacant while a broker tried to get the 18 heirs with some claim to the property to agree on a sales price. The broker informed me at the time that an architect and developer from Biddeford Pool, named Pierre Vial, had purchased the place the previous winter and was preparing to tear the 1840s-era structures down and build condos there.
The two condos were completed in 2014 and sold the following year for over $850,000 each (Vial paid $300,000 for the property). Both are beautifully designed, modern without being boxy, and elegantly appointed — the website of Town & Shore Associates, which has been listing the four-story townhouse-style unit at 9 St. Lawrence, has lots of photos of the interior. Standing at the foot of the granite stairs that lead to the front doors, I felt a lot less “strange” than I had five years ago. And it was hard to picture how another four-story building across the street would dwarf these two or the triple-deckers on the same block. Perhaps condo development gets more worrisome the closer it creeps to your own abode, but I, for one, am glad the haunted manse that once stood here has been replaced by holier housing.
If a dump deteriorates so badly that it’s no longer structurally sound, then it’s OK to knock it down and rebuild from scratch; but if the building’s bones are sufficiently strong to support human habitation, then it should be left standing and renovated. That’s the opinion of Democratic State Sen. Ben Chipman, who lives next door to the three-story apartment building at 163 Cumberland Ave. that we profiled in May of 2012.
That cream-and-green-colored hell house had officially been vacant for at least a couple years when it made these pages, though squatters had been occupying at least two of the three units. The walls inside were smashed and defaced with graffiti, light fixtures and copper pipes had been ripped out, and major appliances overturned. The front door and first-floor bay window were boarded up. “Crack kills,” someone scrawled on the façade, “like god.”
The property was still in foreclosure limbo that spring, but Bank of America handed it over to the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) that fall, and the following January it had a new owner: Chipman, who bought it for the un-princely sum of $56,000. This is actually the second boarded-up and foreclosed-upon three-unit that Chipman has acquired — he purchased his residence on Mayo Street in 2010 for $95,000. (Chipman lives there with his partner, Anna Trevorrow, the current chairwoman of the Portland school board.)
The city had condemned the Cumberland Avenue property at the base of Munjoy Hill as uninhabitable, but Chipman was determined to fix it up, rather than tear it down, and after enduring the usual delays at City Hall to get permits, he accomplished that task a couple years ago. The apartments are fully renovated and rented, and the building is no longer an eyesore or a “crack house.”
Before being elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 2010, as an independent, Chipman was a political aide-de-camp in the local Green Party. One of the things that bothers him about tear-downs is that the debris ends up in landfills. But, like Loschiavo, he’s also turned off when older homes are replaced by “some great big huge tin box.” Chipman told me he supports the local effort to limit demolitions. He believes there are other cities where buildings can be legally demolished only if they’re officially determined to be in danger of falling down. When I asked Chipman where such laws are in effect, he was at a loss to name a place. Maybe Vermont, he said, “but I think we could do something like that” in Portland. We’ll soon find out.
The month after we investigated that dump, I went to Portland’s Back Cove neighborhood to check out the burnt-out three-unit apartment building next to what was then Borealis Bakery & Bistro, on Ocean Avenue. In March of 2011, a fire that started on the second floor of 13-15 Walton St. caused extensive damage, and the property remained empty for over two years while former live-in-landlord Duncan MacDougall, a real-estate broker, battled Bank of America over the insurance claim. As the Press Herald noted in a December 2014 article, city inspectors had initially determined that the building, though charred and partially roofless, was structurally safe, but that assessment changed after two years of snow and rain and rot, so the city hired a contractor to demolish the structure and billed MacDougall $18,000 for the favor.
Following foreclosure, the land was bought in the fall of 2014 by two people from Falmouth (Zareh Derhagopian and Michael Boissonneau, acting as MZ Properties LLC) for $70,000. It’s now a bland but unblemished three-unit condo project. All three units sold last year for over $360,000 each. The Borealis Bakery next door has also been upgraded since the blaze: it’s now Tipo, a restaurant that specializes in small plates and wood-fired pizzas (hold the irony).
Several other residential dumps we wrote about in 2012 have been cleaned up and brought back to life over the past half decade, including the boarded-up and padlocked two-family pad at 99 Washburn Ave., near the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus, and that rarest of birds, a dump in Cape Elizabeth (at 15 Scott Dyer Rd.) that had attracted a flock of prospective buyers circling this ranch-style home’s overgrown, savannah-like yard.
In Portland’s Parkside neighborhood, the one block of Grant Street that allows two-way traffic had two derelict apartment buildings located across from one another. The one we focused on, at 185 Grant St., was owned by the same two guys who were underwater on the Cumberland Avenue building next to Chipman’s place. Following foreclosure, this three-story property was purchased in 2013 by a couple from Falmouth, who fixed it up and sold it last year to a pair of tenant-owners from Westbrook. The boarded-up three-story apartment building at 182 Grant is still vacant. It was acquired in 2015 by the WSFS Financial Corporation, a banking and real-estate behemoth that is clearly in no hurry to bring it back to life.
On the outskirts of the city, near the old landfill next to the Falmouth line, we investigated a plywood-windowed two-unit property at 1062 Ocean Ave. in July of 2012. It had been on and off the market since 2007, listed for as much as $380,000 at one point, but was purchased in 2011 for just $121,000 cash. It’s since been completely renovated and is now technically part of a subdivision, developed by Falmouth-based Black Bear Development, called Old Barn Estates. I say “technically” because there’s no outward indication that this property, on the corner of Ocean and Ledgewood Drive, is part of a larger project. But Old Barn Estates actually includes 12 new lots located about a quarter-mile down Ledgewood, along Ice Pond Drive (several of which have already sprouted houses), and a couple older residences in between.
Among the commercial dumps we profiled five years ago was the Udder Place coffee shop at the busy intersection of Brighton and Stevens avenues, in Portland. This is still the only dump we’ve covered that had a Bollard sticker on the door — courtesy of Udder Place owner Sam Lambert, who’d operated the business since the late ’90s and sold it in early 2011 after triplets arrived. It was snatched up by Maine real-estate broker and developer John Gendron, who’d just inked a lease with Joe and Shay McGonigal — proprietors of The Crooked Mile, a sandwich shop in the Old Port — to open a café there. This was great news, as the natives in this part of Deering were growing restless for a decent cup of coffee, and, in due time, The Crooked Mile @ Rosemont opened to the public at 428 Brighton Ave.
This would continue to be a good-news story but for the car crash that happened here not long after last call on a Saturday night this past October. Two vehicles collided in the intersection and one then caromed into the café, causing substantial damage. According to news reports, one person was taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, and police said booze appeared to be a factor in the accident. A month later, there’s no indication this café will be serving coffee and sandwiches anytime soon. The Fuge and I aren’t engineers, but as we stood looking at the crooked western wall of this beleaguered building, we both reached the same conclusion: tear-down. (Attention Portland Phoenix: you can stop throwing plastic bags full of papers at this building; the insurance-claim process alone is bound to take several more months.)
In March of 2012 we updated the status of two dumps near the intersection of Washington Avenue and Congress Street. The dangerously rickety four-story building at 6 Washington Ave., having failed to hatch into the East End outpost of Bingas Wingas, had already been demolished. The weedy parcel of asphalt that remained, surrounded by a litter-strewn chain-link fence, is now a marginally more attractive private parking area in front of a big mural depicting clammers and boats.
The little hexagonal former barber shop across the avenue, at 15 Washington, was partially demolished and partially occupied by a homeless person with a taste for sweet peas, Funyuns and Marlboros — judging by the detritus found in this den. This structure has also since been razed to make way for parked cars.
A month later, in April 2012, we wrote about the historic dump at 1 India Street: a three-story brick structure, built in 1903, that once housed steamship offices associated with the long-gone Grand Trunk train station and passenger-ship landing. Homeless folks had sought shelter here, too, and a chain-link fence demarked the borders of another development scheme gone south. That would be Riverwalk, the $100 million project, originally proposed in 2007 by Shipyard Brewing Company president Fred Forsely and a partner, that included over 120 luxury condos, offices, a parking garage, and restaurant and retail space. With the help of a $5 million city tax break, the Ocean Gateway parking garage got built, but the rest of the project never materialized due to legal squabbles between the principals (in fairness to them, the onset of the Great Recession surely didn’t help, either).
Last year, Gorham Savings Bank purchased and restored the historic building at 1 India, where Turner Barker Insurance, which the bank also owns, was formerly a tenant. There’s an “interactive teller machine” on the property and a “personal banker” keeps bankers’ hours there, but otherwise this is private waterfront office space for GSB executives.
Meanwhile, the fenced-in lot behind this building is filling up fast. A Florida-based development company called the Portland Norwich Group, whose public face is attached to a guy from Massachusetts named Ara Aftandilian, is nearing completion of a 150-room AC Hotel by Marriott at 158 Fore St. The property is also slated to include 16 condos, and retail or restaurant space on the ground floor. (Aftandilian, then representing an entity called Chapin Realty, was also involved in the 2009 development of the Residence Inn by Marriott located across Fore Street from this “European inspired” AC-branded hotel, where you order “tapas” instead of regular ol’ room-service fare, according to promotional materials.) Earlier this year, Aftandilian submitted plans to subdivide the remaining part of this property into three lots that are expected to be developed into more condos, some apartments, offices and retail space in the not-too-distant future.
This brings us to the twelfth and final dump of this year’s Five Year Reunion special, and it’s a doozey: the historic Schwartz Building at 600-606 Congress St., on the corner of High Street (and beautifully illustrated in scratch board on this month’s cover by Portland artist Margery Niblock). It’s now been seven years since renovation work began on this iconic downtown property, which includes several street-level retail spaces and three floors suitable for residences and offices above. It’s owned by mega-landlord Geoffrey Rice, whose Portland portfolio includes over 15 properties in the West End and downtown.
Although the property-tax bill for this gem is nearly $25,000, Lord Geoffrey is apparently in no hurry to get this job done and start reaping revenue here. I ran into a couple guys on his construction crew last month during their lunch break at a local bar, and one told me there’s still a ton of work to be done. The most recent plan involves maybe a dozen luxury apartments that could rent for upwards of $3,000 or more, replacing what we previously described as a “rabbit warren” of about 20 units connected by narrow hallways. One of those apartments was the home of the Tower of Song, where local indie-rock and alt-folk acts like Phantom Buffalo and the late, great Johnny Fountain used to perform by an open window, serenading the Arts District for free.
The chronic vacancy and general decrepitude of this downtown landmark have been giving the city’s boosters fits for years. “The current state of the Schwartz Building is not the impression that we want to give tourists, businesses and possible investors of downtown Portland,” Portland Museum of Art director Mark Bessire wrote in a letter to the Portland Press Herald — published two and a half years ago. Bessire complained that “no one” at City Hall “has taken a leadership role to solve this issue,” despite the fact Rice received public money to improve the building’s façade through a city-administered program intended to help beautify downtown.
Paul Bulger, an attorney representing Rice on this project, told The Forecaster in the summer of 2011 that work was being delayed while Rice sought federal tax credits for the renovation of the historic property. Unforeseen snags in the effort to provide sufficient electricity for a restaurant space on the corner of the building were also supposedly retarding progress. (Bulger did not respond to our request for comment last month.) In early 2015, the Bangor Daily News reported that the chef-and-restaurateur team of Shannon and Tom Bard (late of Zapoteca) were abandoning their effort to open a “high-end, contemporary Spanish” restaurant there, to be called Toroso, after more than two years of planning.
The spray-painted plywood walls that long covered the ground floor are finally gone, and there’s a sign in the window indicating the would-be restaurant space is for lease through NAI The Dunham Group. But that space isn’t even listed on Dunham’s website, and only a sucker would believe any assertions or promises made about this property ever again.