PORTLAND, Maine — Developers of a four-tower, two-parking garage proposal in the Bayside neighborhood are the first to seek “master development plan” status in Portland — a strategy previously reserved for former military bases.

Portland City Planner Jeffrey Levine said the master plan concept, providing incentives to developers to lay out long-term visions for the future buildout of larger stretches of land, is relatively new to Maine as a municipal tool. Proponents of the master planning process say one of its benefits is that developers proposing a longer-term, large-scale project can face public debate upfront instead of bit-by-bit as each new building on a campus is erected.

While the so-called Midtown project has been lauded by many area residents, Portland Community Chamber representatives and the city councilor representing the Bayside neighborhood, at least two ardent opponents are digging in against it.

City residents Peter Monro and Tim Paradis have hired an attorney to help make their case to block the project, calling it too massive for a small city like Portland. They see the application for master plan status as their chance to prove that the development bucks the city’s longer term vision for growth and Bayside in particular. Developers, however, strongly disagree.

Developers from The Federated Cos. of Florida are pursuing site plan approval for the first phase of the project — a 165-foot-tall apartment building with space on the bottom floor for restaurants and shops, and a nearby parking garage that will be 75 feet high. Estimated costs are $38 million.

They are concurrently seeking the city’s larger master development plan designation that would lay the proverbial groundwork for the next two phases.

By the time the proposed Midtown project is complete, after a decade’s worth of construction and $150 million, the complex would include 1.16 million square feet of building space, including 700,000 square feet of residential space, 100,000 square feet of retail and more than 1,100 garage parking spaces.

If permitted, the development will occupy the stretch of Somerset Street between Elm Street and what will be an extension of Pearl Street, bisected by Chestnut Street. The largely undeveloped city-owned area was formerly industrial scrapyards.

The project is being proposed against a backdrop of booming development in both the city and Bayside neighborhood in particular. Five new hotels are planned for Portland in the coming few years and one other — the former Eastland Park Hotel — is undergoing an expansion.

In Bayside over the past decade, private developers have poured $140 million into projects south of Interstate 295. That includes a $15 million Whole Foods Market and $26.5 million 10-story headquarters for the health care company InterMed, both of which will be within a short walk of the proposed Midtown project.

If the master plan designation is granted for Midtown, it freezes key zoning allowances. The most significant lock-in is the allowable maximum square footage for a site, which changes in different parts of the city, for as long as 10 years while they finalize details on future phases, Levine said.

“We want people with a lot of property to think comprehensively about how that property is developed, and we’re willing to provide some assurances for them if they do,” Levine said.

“It doesn’t make it ironclad [that the builder will receive all additional permits necessary to complete the full project], but it does give the developer more leverage to go out and seek financial support because they do get some important guarantees, and it’s seen as kind of a vote of confidence from the city,” he continued.

Other communities in Maine are exploring the master plan process as an economic development tool.

In Bangor, Community and Economic Development Director Rosie Vanadestine said the city owns an approximately 80-acre parcel of land adjacent to Bangor International Airport and officials there hope to find a developer who will approach the entire property with a comprehensive vision, as opposed to breaking it up into smaller lots and seeing piecemeal development.

“We’re marketing it, we’re shopping it, and we’re hoping to find a developer who might be interested in it,” she said. “We’re hoping if somebody came in and wanted the whole acreage to develop, that would be our best scenario.”

The municipal master plan process borrows its philosophical underpinnings from the federally mandated master planning processes used during the civilian redevelopment of decommissioned military bases, including Brunswick Naval Air Station just a half-hour from Portland.

Steve Levesque is the executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the group which now oversees the civilian reuse of the former 1,400-acre Brunswick air station, which closed as a military installation in 2011.

Levesque said the creation of a master plan — as his team did for the former Navy base — can be contentious and time consuming, as neighbors and officials offer competing ideas for a property. But he said there’s value to developers facing that debate upfront, rather than incrementally as they seek permits for each building in their overall plans.

Levesque cited the nearly five-year-old Plum Creek development plan near Moosehead Lake, which would include more than 2,000 dwelling units and two resort areas over 17,000 mostly forested acres rezoned for redevelopment, as an example. That large-scale plan did not go through a municipal master plan process, like what’s now available for developers in Portland, but sought approvals largely from state regulators.

“You get the controversy out there during the planning process, but then after [the master plan is] approved, you can concentrate on implementing the plan, rather than having people react along the way to parts of the project that hadn’t been vetted,” Levesque said.

In Portland, some residents have blasted the Midtown project as being out-of-scale with the city’s footprint. They also have criticized the developers for seeking more than a dozen ordinance and design waivers, including an allowance for buildings to cast longer shadows than would normally be permitted and to build garages without the required physical separation between vehicle entrances and exits.

The city council already has approved an ordinance change for the area that would allow the project’s proposed 165-foot towers to exceed previous height limitations of between 105 feet and 125 feet.

“We’re not getting any truly Portland-like urban development out of this,” said opponent Monro, adding that the project would be more appropriate among the skyscrapers of the developers’ home city of Miami. “This is what happens when you try to build buildings too big for the property. Our zoning ordinances weren’t created out of thin air. They’re pieces of our comprehensive plan, and they’re made to be adhered to.”

That’s a debate Greg Shinberg, who represents The Federated Cos. locally, wants to engage in upfront while in pursuit of master plan status. The developers believe through the master planning process they can show that their big picture vision for the site agrees with the comprehensive plan’s intent, if not each specific ordinance therein.

“If we know we’re going to ask for these waivers, let’s put them on the table right now,” Shinberg told a group of neighborhood residents during a Tuesday night meeting. “We’re certainly trying to create a neighborhood feel down there. … I think there’s been a strong consensus for many, many years that it’s important to get life back into this area of Bayside.”

Levesque from the MRRA said the master plan process can be a powerful economic development tool for communities.

“I’m a big advocate of master planning for large tracts of land,” Levesque said. “It’s good public policy. From a developer’s perspective, you have something to sell within the development community, because you can sell the vision and the overall plan. That’s pretty powerful.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.