Driving down I-295 in Portland, most Maine residents are used to seeing the iconic B&M Baked Bean factory overlooking Casco Bay. Now a non-profit organization hopes to transform the once vibrant industrial site into a new 21st century campus and tech hub that developers envision as the future of innovation and economic growth in the city.
This week, the Institute of Computational Engineering and Life Sciences, or IDEALS, submitted a 20-year review redevelopment plan to city planners setting their ambitious goals to turn the 13.5-acre property into a high-tech graduate school and research center for Northeastern University’s Roux Institute. IDEALS is a non-profit organization based in Falmouth created to develop the campus.
IDEALS Chief Operating Officer and Head of Real Estate Sam Reiche said the campus will have a statewide impact.
“The goal is to create jobs and provide employment opportunities in Maine,” Reiche said.
Beyond educational buildings, the company offers offices and laboratories for institutional partners, housing for students, faculty and employees, a hotel for visitors, retail and catering spaces and a open green space accessible to the public on the water. In total, the nonprofit plans to build up to nearly 1.8 million square feet of space in at least six new buildings as part of a three-phase plan over the next two decades. .
“It needs to have a real sense of place, and the hope is that it’s also a real connection to the neighborhoods around it. And so the open space is one way we hope to interact with the neighborhood and the city community,” Reiche said. “In order to create open space, we need smaller footprints, so there will be concessions there.”
IDEALS is asking the city for zoning changes that would allow the company to construct buildings 75 to 210 feet tall, including a possible 16 to 17-story residential tower. It would rival the current tallest building in the state – Franklin Towers in Portland, at 16 stories. Reiche said the tallest residential building on campus would be near the highest point of I-295, while the lowest point would be near the waterfront.
Some residents of neighboring East Deering are concerned about the scale of the project – and fear it will forever change their neighborhood and cause massive disruption to traffic and housing.
“Done well, it could be great. Done badly, it could be devastating,” said Chris Briley, an architect who lives on Veranda Street in East Deering. He said almost all traffic to campus would pass in front of his house, a four-unit building that he and his fiancé own and live in.
“They are talking about a very high density development on a property served by the tiny Sherwood Street. And they haven’t offered any solution on how they’re going to handle that traffic or avoid getting traffic,” Briley said.
IDEALS offered additional transportation options, including expanded bike lanes, subway lines, on-campus parking, and even a possible water taxi. However, some neighbors fear that this is simply not enough.
Justin Litchfield, who has lived near Kendall Street for 10 years, worries that Veranda Street won’t be able to handle the volume, and he points out how congested the Washington Avenue exit from I-295 can get during rush hour .
“Outside of summer, we hang out in our yard after work. I can tell you several times a month we hear tires screeching and car crashes, it happens all the time,” Litchfield said.
Briley and Litchfield are among the new East Deering Neighbors for Responsible Development of approximately 30-40 neighbors who have formed to address some of their development concerns and have a greater role in the process. Most of the neighbors involved in the group like the idea of the educational campus, but just want it scaled down a bit.
“Every time I drove home on I-295, I looked at the B&M factory and assumed that one day condominiums would go there. And so it’s exciting to know that there will be an educational facility as part of the larger development,” said Michelle Zichella, who lives on Watson Street just north of the property. However, she said she would appreciate more direct responses to community concerns from the developers.
IDEALS held two roundtables with neighbours, in addition to a public meeting required by the planning process. But so far, several of the group’s neighbors are unhappy with how IDEALS is addressing their concerns.
“I think a lot of people were just kind of caught off guard,” Litchfield said. “The people at IDEALS are just like, ‘This is what we’re doing. We’re moving forward with this. We’ll listen to your concerns, but at the end of the day, we’re moving forward no matter what the neighbors are feeling and think. That’s the vibe I have, anyway.
“We recognize that we’re coming into a community, and so we want to be very sensitive to that,” Reiche said. “It’s a campus that’s going to be here for a very long time, we hope it will be very successful. And so I think having good relations with the community, its neighbors is going to be essential.
IDEALS is also asking the city to rezone the area from industrial to commercial, using a special zoning designation typically used for hospital complexes and universities, called Institutional overlap areas (IOZ), which allows the city to manage the growth of these institutions over time.
Planning director Christine Grimando said this zoning designation requires a lot more upfront work from IDEALS, including feedback from the neighborhood and how they plan to mitigate some of the impacts of the development. .
“They have to create what’s called an institutional development plan, and that spells out things like how they’re going to integrate the neighborhood, what that relationship will be,” Grimando said. “And an additional sort of pre-planning of a lot of what this overlay app is, needs a lot of up-front work to kind of show how they’re planning to change what they are and how they’re going to mitigate some of the impacts.”
Some neighbors question whether the IOZ designation is appropriate for a campus that includes a hotel, restaurants, and residential high-rises. Reiche said there was a need to attract businesses and students, and he said building on-site housing for students and staff was a way to reduce traffic to and from campus.
“We need equipment there. We need it to be a place where people want to work, live and visit,” Reiche said. “We’re creating it for the mission of the institute, though, and that’s the difference from what we’ve seen in other commercial projects.”
IDEALS predicts that the student population at Institut Roux could start with 1,750 students in the first five years and eventually grow to 4,500 in 20 years.
As for the emblematic building of the B&M cannery, IDEALS will seek to obtain the status of a historical monument of the city and will reuse the building as a business incubator.
“The canning that happened there under B&M was pretty revolutionary at the time in the food industry, which was a huge part of Maine’s economy in that century,” Reiche said. “I think doing technology incubation there to look into the next century would be really exciting.”
Zoning applications still have months of town planning review, followed by a review by the city council. Opportunities to hear public comment will be available throughout the process, Grimando said.
The transition from an industrial site to a high-tech campus reflects the changing culture and economy of Portland, and could serve as a test of a small town’s ability to transform into a 21st turntable of the century.
“Cities are constantly changing, [but my job is] trying to make sure that how they change benefits as many people as possible and contributes to a place,” Grimando said. “I think an educational institution wanting to grow in the city is a very positive thing. When you think about economic development and community strength, you never want it all to be one thing. Ideally, you don’t have a community built solely on tourism…or just one industry. An educational institution doesn’t just diversify things, it really brings, I think, a lot of associated benefits. »