The Right Equation for Responsible Development: Spotlight on Thornton Heights Commons (South Portland)

Each year, the Maine Real Estate & Development Association (MEREDA) recognizes some of the state’s most “noteworthy and significant” real estate projects, completed in the previous year. The exemplary projects from across the state, completed in 2021, not only embody MEREDA’s belief in responsible real estate development, but also exemplify best practices in the industry, contributing to Maine’s economic growth by significant investment of resources and job creation statewide.

This year, MEREDA honored projects from Portland to Biddeford to Bangor, with each receiving special recognition at MEREDA’s 2022 Spring Conference on May 24th.

In a multi-part series exclusive to the Maine Real Estate Insider, we’ll provide an up-close look at the most notable commercial development projects of the past year that are helping to fuel Maine’s economy in terms of investment and job creation. MEREDA is proud to recognize responsible development based upon criteria including environmental sustainability, economic impact, energy efficiency, difficulty of the development, uniqueness, social impact and job creation.

MEREDA’s 2021 Top 7 recipients include:

Harold Alfond Hall, Husson University (Bangor)Harnois & Emery Apartments, Westbrook Housing, Westbrook Development Corporation, and Anew Development (Westbrook)
Thornton Heights Commons, South Portland Housing Development Corporation (South Portland)
Riverdam Mill Complex, Port Property (Biddeford)
40 Free Street, JB Brown & Sons & Ryan Senatore Architecture, (Portland)
Deering Place, Zachau Construction & Avesta Housing, (Portland)
Children’s Museum + Theatre Maine, Zachau Construction (Portland)

Please join us this week in celebrating Thornton Heights Commons.

MEREDA:  Describe the building and project.

Thornton Heights Commons:  Thornton Heights Commons is a new four-story mixed-use affordable housing and commercial building, with associated parking, community open space and three new single-family house lots located at 611 Main Street in South Portland. The residential portion of the building is comprised of 42 apartments and community amenities. The commercial portion of the building includes 7,000 s.f. of dividable space, an outdoor seating area located along Main Street, and a satellite police station. In addition, the property includes a neighborhood open space, community garden, and three new single-family house lots.

MEREDA:  What was the impetus for this project? 

Thornton Heights Commons:  The South Portland Housing Development Corporation (SPHDC) adopted a new strategic plan in 2016 that called for the organization to increase the development of new affordable housing. In response to these goals, the SPHDC identified the 611 Main Street property as an ideal development site for a mixed-use affordable housing development. In addition to the site’s advantageous location and properties, the project would build upon the City of South Portland’s efforts to revitalize the Main Street corridor in Thornton Heights. The City has installed new sidewalks, traffic calming, landscaping, and ornamental lighting. This new infrastructure laid the groundwork upon which Thornton Heights Commons will contribute to the revitalization of the neighborhood.

MEREDA:  That sounds like quite a process.  How long were you in the planning stages before construction started?

Thornton Heights Commons:  The planning stages started in the fall of 2017 and completed with the start of construction in the summer of 2020.

MEREDA:  Tell us about the most challenging aspect of getting this project completed.

Thornton Heights Commons:  The most challenging aspect of completing Thornton Heights Commons was overcoming the NIMBY response to the proposal. Like many multifamily, and affordable housing, developments in the State, Thornton Heights Commons needed a zoning change to increase the allowed residential density.

While the site fronts on US Route 1, the rear portion of the property abuts a neighborhood of single-family and duplex homes. Anticipating that there would be opposition, the SPHDC planned an extensive neighborhood involved process that was intentionally open-ended in terms of time and design outcomes. In sum, the project would not progress to the zoning application stage until collecting all neighborhood input and exploring all design avenues.

In addition to the design team, SPHDC hired a professional facilitator to moderate the neighborhood meetings. The facilitator created a meeting environmental in which all parties felt comfortable expressing their opinions. Too often, opponents to a development speak the loudest and this intimidates and shuts out supporter input. The facilitator also promoted constructive input that resulted in multiple design iterations and a final design that formed the basis for what was ultimately constructed. The SPHDC also held site visits to existing properties to show the organization’s high level of management and maintenance. Finally, SPHDC help property tours and discussions with City Councilors to relay the project’s positive potential for housing and neighborhood revitalization.

The result was that during the City Council rezoning hearings the SPHDC was able to speak to the extensive public design process and the benefits to of the project. Equally as important, the Council received testimony both against and for the project from neighborhood and City residents. Without this balanced testimony, the project would not have moved forward.

MEREDA:  Something unexpected you learned along the way was….

Thornton Heights Commons:  The project site housed an existing religious campus that included a very large church structure and a school/office/monastery building that contained hazardous substances and thus represented significant costs to redevelopment. The SPHDC, with the assistance of Credere Associates of Westbrook, ME, the Greater Portland Council of Governments Brownfields Assessment Program, the City of South Portland’s CDBG program, the Maine DEP and US EPA, put together $800,000 in funding to convert this blighted and contaminated property into a redevelopment site. What was unexpected was how eager and capable all of these agencies were in providing expertise and funding to turn properties into sites of new investment for public benefit.

MEREDA:  Now that it’s complete, what feature of the project do you think makes it the most notable? 

Thornton Heights Commons:  The most notable feature is the building’s mix of residential, commercial and public uses. Mixed-use development is touted by public policy, planning and smart growth advocates for its positive social and environmental benefits. However, it is very difficult to develop and adds significant complexity to any development project. SPHDC has put a significant amount of time and resources into developing Thornton Heights Commons as a first-rate mixed-use project that will benefit its residents, the neighborhood and the City of South Portland. We are very proud of the project.

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