Portland city councilors endorsed a proposal Monday night to tighten zoning restrictions in an area along Forest Avenue where a beloved neighborhood bar was nearly displaced by a big-box pharmacy three years ago.

The rezoning stems from a proposal in 2016 to demolish Forest Gardens and neighboring buildings to make way for a new CVS pharmacy, which prompted a public outcry and led to a recommendation for historic protections for a cluster of buildings that included the eight-decade-old dive bar.

On Monday, the council voted unanimously to prohibit drive-throughs and other suburban development features in the area bounded by Forest Avenue, Baxter Boulevard and Preble Street Extension. It also prohibits large parking lots from facing Forest Avenue and adopts other urban design standards.

However, councilors were split on a proposal to use drive-through windows as a reward for housing. The proposal would allow drive-through windows for banks and pharmacies, as long as they were part of a residential, mixed-use development at least three stories tall. It was pitched as a way to encourage housing, but opponents argued it wouldn’t work.

David Weeks, the owner of Palmer Spring Co., said the rezoning would devalue his property. Weeks was one of several property owners interested in selling their land to CVS three years ago. He noted that the city has other relatively new businesses with drive-through windows and he was being unfairly targeted.

“It’s specifically designed to prevent me from selling my property,” Weeks said. “It’s 100 percent discrimination and it started three years ago.”

After the public outcry in 2016 from bar patrons and advocates for smart growth, CVS dropped the proposal.

The rezoning proposal resurfaced on the City Council agenda Monday because of other more recent interest in the properties, according to a city official who also said historic designations may come forward soon. Officials would not say what development proposals might be in the wings.

When asked whether CVS was reviving its plan in light of the pending zone changes, Robin Peterson, the company’s real estate director, said in an email last week, “I am not working on any deals in Portland, Maine at this time. No plans.”

Attorneys who previously represented the property owners, developer and CVS also said they have not been involved since the issue came before the council three years ago.

While councilors agreed that the area was not suitable for a suburban-style development, they could not agree about whether drive-through windows could be used as an incentive to build housing.

City Councilor Belinda Ray said she had spoken with some affordable housing developers who argued that corporations like CVS and Walgreen’s have the resources to pay top dollar for properties on traffic corridors, and that the city should use drive-through windows, which seem important for these developments, as leverage.

“It would incentivize housing along that corridor,” Ray said.

Weeks said that three other developers have turned down that type of development, saying it’s not financially viable because of parking standards.

Nicholas Mavodones and Kimberly Cook were among the councilors seeking to postpone action on that proposal in order to see whether parking, as well as height limits, are obstacles for housing developers.

“We can have a shiny ordinance but are we going to get what we want out of it?” Mavodones asked.

After a series of parliamentary procedures, they eventually prevailed in a 7-2 vote with Ray and Councilor Justin Costa opposing the postponement.

Barbara Barhydt, the city’s development review services manager, said in a memo to the council that there are no pending development plans being reviewed, but “interest in potential redevelopment has been brought to the attention of the city.”

Jeff Levine, the city’s urban planning and development director, would not provide any additional information about who has been looking at redeveloping the property or what they’re were looking to do.

The zone changes date to January of 2016, when a developer proposed razing five buildings on Forest Avenue to make way for a new CVS. A group calling itself Save Forest Gardens quickly formed and advocated against the plan.

Historic preservation staff recommended designating three buildings as local landmarks: Palmer Spring Co. at 351-355 Forest Ave., Forest Gardens at 371-373 Forest Ave. and 369 Forest Ave.

The Historic Preservation Board endorsed that recommendation, which prevents them from being torn down, even though they have not been formally designated as local landmarks. The board noted the cultural importance of Forest Gardens, which has been around for over eight decades.

Being eligible for a historic designation does enact some protections to the buildings, city officials have said, but not as many as if they were a historical landmark.

Despite the recommendations, none of the buildings has been formally nominated as a local landmark, but Barhydt said in a memo to councilors that the board will make recommendations to the council in the coming months.

The proposed historic protections and potential zone changes were enough to discourage CVS from moving forward.

City Manager Jon Jennings said in August of 2016 that the developer considered putting the CVS in the groundfloor of a mixed use development, but dropped the plan due to a perceived lack of parking.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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