Apr. 13—The Maine College of Art is planning to convert a 108-year-old, six-story office building in downtown Portland into a new student residence hall.
College officials and the developer of the dorm publicly disclosed the project this week while raising concerns about the city's recently announced plans to move some social services and public health operations to the building next door. They cited safety concerns and called on the city to slow down its plan to more carefully consider the move.
The residence hall is planned for 45 Forest Ave., while the city plans to use a two-story office building at 39 Forest Ave. as a new location for social services and public health programming, including the Needle Exchange, STD/HIV testing and the Portland Community Free Clinic, which provides care to low-income people.
Jonathan Culley of Redfern Properties said Tuesday he recently purchased the former New England Telephone and Telegraph Co. building and is partnering with MECA to convert it into a 180-student dorm. The historic restoration project, estimated to cost $15 million, would also include a cafeteria, classrooms and lounge space on the first floor and could be ready for occupancy for in the fall of 2023.
The building is next to where the city plans to consolidate the city's social service and public health programs next door at 39 Forest Ave. A memo addressed to the council's Health and Human Services & Public Safety Committee states the city would like to begin renovating the office in June, so staff can begin relocating in July.
City officials were scheduled to brief city councilors on the proposal Tuesday night. In response to concerns expressed by Culley and MECA, the city announced the committee would accept public comment on the proposal at tonight's meeting, though no committee action is scheduled.
MECA President Laura Freid said Tuesday that a residence hall is needed because students cannot compete for apartments in Portland's hot housing market. For years, the college has sought a location for a new dorm within easy walking distance to art studios on Congress Street and Cumberland Avenue. She said 45 Forest Ave. fits the bill, because the back of the property abuts a dorm on Oak Street.
She was surprised to learn over the weekend about the city's plan for the neighboring property.
"If this (city office) had existed when we were looking at 45 Forest Ave, we probably wouldn't have considered it," Freid said. "Our plans would be put in jeopardy if the plan moves forward."
Freid said the college currently leases apartments for students on Preble Street and has had to increase security and escort services for students who feel unsafe walking at night. She said students can access the college's art studios 24 hours a day — whenever inspiration strikes — so student safety is a top concern, with 70 percent of the student body being women between the ages of 18-22.
Freid noted that the city's plan calls for security guards and metal detectors, which suggests that safety could be an issue, especially in a narrow alleyway between the two buildings known as Deland's Court.
"I see that as very problematic when you have a community of students who are using the building 24/7," Freid said.
City officials said they had been looking at the Forest Avenue site since before the pandemic because leases for their Lancaster and India street locations expire this year. However, Culley said the proposed move did not come up when he met with city officials in November to discuss the dorm project.
Culley said the city's aggressive timeline will cut off much-needed public discussion and consideration. He expects to file the development application for the dorm in the coming weeks.
"This is a massive deal with huge reverberation, first and foremost with the clients of these services," Culley said. "Then it has massive consequences for several neighborhoods in Portland. It's a big deal and it ought to be very, very carefully considered."
A City Hall spokesperson said the city's plan to relocate operations doesn't require zoning or planning review and was not something that would have come up during a 30-minute pre-application meeting with a developer.
Kristen Dow, the director of the city's Health and Human Services department, said in an interview Friday the timeline coincides with leases that are expiring for the city's social services offices on Lancaster Street and the public health programming at India Street. She said both locations have a range of maintenance issues at the current offices. India Street experienced a water main break last fall, forcing it to close for 10 days, and has ongoing security issues. And Lancaster Street has had plumbing, electrical and ventilation issues.
Dow said co-locating the social services and public health would make it easier to connect clients to services, since there is often overlap. She said the larger facility will provide enough space indoors for clients waiting for appointments and allow the city to expand its services, which would be located between two busy bus lines on Congress Street and Cumberland Avenue.
Although the office would not be an overnight or day shelter, Dow said people seeking shelter for the first time would be registered in the new Forest Avenue space, where staff would try to mediate disputes with landlords or reunite individuals with families as alternatives to relying on the city's shelters. If emergency shelter is needed, the city will transport those people to city-run shelters on Oxford or Chestnut street from there, she said.
During Monday's council meeting, MECA Executive Vice President Elizabeth Elizabeth Elicker expressed "deep concerns" over the city's proposal. She said MECA spent three years looking for a suitable location for a residence hall, before landing on 45 Forest Ave. The move would allow the college to release 71 apartments in downtown currently leased for students back into the rental market.
Elicker emphasized that nearly three quarters of MECA's student body are under-aged females.
"The new residence hall will house mostly under-aged female students ages 18-20 years old," she said. 'The public safety risk presented with theses types of services being offered next door are of great concern."
A lease for the Forest Avenue building, which would cost about $277,500 a year, would need council approval, however.
Freid, of MECA, suggested on Tuesday the city should slow down its decision-making process.
"I would ask that a proper process for evaluating the proposal be put in place," Freid said, "and that no leases be signed until there is an appropriate conversation about plans and what alternatives might feasible."