AUGUSTA — The Planning Board approved a controversial proposal to build two new office buildings on Capitol Street near the State House late Tuesday, but required the developer to come back to the board with some alternate exterior designs and colors they hope will improve the appearance of the largest building and make it a better fit for such a prominent location.

Critics of the proposed development, however, said after the vote their concerns with the proposal aren’t so much about the color or appearance of the 104,000 square-foot building, as they are about its location in the middle of a large parking lot. That type of design makes for poor pedestrian access, poor urban design, and a missed opportunity to create a more inviting site that blends into the adjacent state Capitol complex, they said.

The developer of the project, Virginia-based FD Stonewater, has three months to get back to the Planning Board with some alternate exterior ideas, which Planning Board Member Alison Nichols, who made the motion to approve the project with several conditions, said should include alternatives to the exterior color, currently proposed as white, and other exterior design changes such as changes to make it fit in better with the nearby Cross State Office Building.

But some of the multiple people who expressed concerns about the project said while everyone wants an attractive exterior for the building, that wasn’t their prime concern with the proposed design. Instead, they said, it is the main building’s location in the middle of a parking lot, and away from the Capitol and Sewall street intersection. They said the site design could be improved by moving the building to that corner of the property, where it would be closer to the Capitol complex and would be more accessible for pedestrians coming and going.

“The way they arranged the building was more our concern, than the color of the siding,” Frank O’Hara, a local planning consultant, said Wednesday. “My concern is the lack of pedestrian access and flow. Provide some better pedestrian access, make some outdoor eating places, trails, things that make it so it felt more like an extension of the Capitol, rather than a big building in the middle of a big parking lot.”

O’Hara did note he feels the offices planned on the site are a terrific use of the former site of the state Department of Transportation’s maintenance facility, for which state government “should be congratulated for thinking outside of the box.”

The proposed project includes two new buildings, one a large, three-story 104,000 square foot building that would be leased to the state for offices, the other a 26,000 square foot building that would be leased to the Maine Public Employees Retirement System, as well as, originally, a 675-space parking lot, at the former site of the state Department of Transportation’s maintenance facility at 109 Capitol St. The current retirement system building would be torn down as part of the project.

Board members voted 6 to 1 late Tuesday to approve the project, but made that approval contingent on several conditions including that the developer come back to the board to discuss the exterior design of the larger of the two buildings before construction.

Board member Tom Connors said he likes the current design of the proposal.

Claiborne Williams, a principal at FD Stonewater, developer of the project, said it is a thoughtful balancing act the company put a great deal of time and effort into creating.

Williams said demanding add-ons and an increased “wow factor” in the project could jeopardize it. He said financing for the project is “fragile” and if they don’t act in a timely manner it could fall apart.

Board member Peter Pare expressed concern about the developer potentially walking away from the project, if it wasn’t approved by the board.

“There is an absolute chance, if we don’t approve this, they’ll walk,” Pare said. “We have to live with that as a possibility.”

In July, when the developer first brought the project to the Planning Board seeking a major development permit, the board voted to table the proposal and multiple board members said it was aesthetically lacking, and that such a prominent spot should have a more attractively designed facility upon it.

In response, and after consulting with city staff, representatives of developer FD Stonewater modified the proposal, adding a small park with a short walking path, benches, trees and grass, at the corner of Capitol and Sewall streets, in a spot which originally included more parking spaces.

The new plan reduces the total number of parking spaces for the two buildings from 675 to 619, with 45 of the spots being eliminated from the corner of Capitol and Sewall streets.

A small amount of additional green space was also added between the two buildings and the use of retaining walls was decreased in the revised plan for the 10.5 acre site.

The original proposal drew criticism from city officials and residents, including resident Cheryl Clukey, who said the facility looks like a prison and “is awful and so unattractive for such a prominent location and also part of the Capitol complex.”

Brian Kent, an urban designer from Litchfield, who has worked as a consultant for the city in the past, criticized both the original and revised proposal, and submitted what he described as a “better plan” which would put the larger building at the corner of Sewall and Capitol streets, with parking behind it where, he said, it would be better screened from view. He wrote that the project, even as revised, does not meet good urban design standards, is not pedestrian-friendly, and does not comply with the neighborhood compatibility standards of the city’s Land Use Ordinance.

“It’s not about art or cosmetics, it’s about meeting the six criteria in your Land Use Ordinance for neighborhood compatibility,” Kent said.

He said Tuesday he sympathizes with the developer because they were limited by the state to a per square foot lease cost of about $19, which limits the project, and said the governor and state Legislature should appropriate more money for the lease to get a better building.

Williams said the company’s proposal reduces the amount of pavement compared to what is on the site now, and adds greenspace, landscaping and areas for people to walk. He said the company is very proud of the design. He said it is meant to fit in with the surrounding buildings.

“We increased landscaping and greenspace where we can,” Williams said. “We’re certainly trying to be good partners and neighbors with the adjacent neighbors.”

Mayor David Rollins said while the city appreciates the state having the project built and owned by a private developer, and thus not exempt from property taxes like it would be if built and owned by the state, the proposed design is not adequate for such a significant location. He expressed frustration the state did not allow the city to have more input into the project.

The developer plans to demolish the large old green DOT buildings and build office space it will lease to the state, which plans to move workers from other buildings in Augusta to the new offices.

State workers would occupy the larger of the two buildings, which would be built on the lower portion of the lot, closer to the State House complex.

David Heidrich Jr., communications director for the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services, said about 520 state employees would move into the new building when it is completed, which is projected to be by July 2019. He said the vast majority of employees moving there work for the Department of Health and Human Services, most of whom now work at state owned office buildings at 221 and 242 State St.

Heidrich said on Tuesday that the project represents an opportunity for the city to get a vastly improved site that is well-designed and efficient.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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