The former B&M factory is poised to become an innovation hub. But can the neighborhood handle it?
Driving down I-295 in Portland, most Mainers are accustomed to seeing the iconic B&M Baked Bean factory overlooking Casco Bay. Now a nonprofit is hoping to transform the once-vibrant industrial site into a new 21st century campus and technological hub that developers envision as the future of innovation and economic growth in the city.
This week, the Institute for Digital Engineering and Life Sciences, or IDEALS, submitted a 20-year redevelopment plan to city planners laying out of their ambitious goals of turning the 13.5-acre property into a high-tech graduate school and research center for the Roux Institute at Northeastern University. IDEALS is a Falmouth-based nonprofit set up to develop the campus.
IDEALS Chief Operations Officer and Head of Real Estate Sam Reiche said the campus will have statewide impact.
“The goal is to create jobs and bring job opportunities into Maine,” Reiche said.
Beyond the educational buildings, the company is proposing building office and lab space for institutional partners, housing for students, faculty and employees, a hotel for visitors, retail and dining spaces, and publicly accessible open green space on the water. In total, the nonprofit anticipates building up to nearly 1.8 million square feet of space in at least six new buildings as part of three-phase plan over the next two decades.
“It needs to have a real sense of place, and the hope is it also as a real connection to the neighborhoods around it. And so open space is a way that we're hoping to interact with the neighborhood and the community in the city,” Reiche said. “In order to make open space, we need smaller footprints, so there will be some give and take there.”
IDEALS is requesting zoning changes from the city that would allow the company to construct buildings between 75 feet to 210 feet tall, including a possible 16- 17 story residential high-rise. That would rival the state’s current tallest building – Franklin Towers in Portland, at 16 stories. Reiche said the tallest residential building on campus would be close to 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 worry it could forever change their neighborhood and cause massive disruptions in traffic and housing.
“Done well, it could be great. Done poorly, it could be devastating,” said Chris Briley, an architect who lives on Veranda Street in East Deering. He said that nearly all the traffic going to the campus would travel in front of his house, a four-unit building which he and his fiancé own and live in.
“They're talking about a very high-density development on a piece of property that’s served by tiny, little Sherwood Street. And they've put forward no solution for how they are going to manage that traffic, or keep from having traffic,” Briley said.
IDEALS has proposed some additional transportation options, including expanded bikes paths, metro lines, parking on campus, and even a potential water cab. However, some neighbors worry it’s just not enough.
Justin Litchfield, who has lived on nearby Kendall Street for 10 years, is concerned that Veranda Street won’t be able to handle the volume, and he points to how congested the Washington Avenue exit of I-295 can get during rush hour.
“Outside the summertime, we hang out in our yard after work. I can tell you multiple times a month, we hear screeching tires and car accidents, it happens all the time,” Litchfield said.
Briley and Litchfield are part of the newly formed East Deering Neighbors for Responsible Development of about 30-40 neighbors that formed to address some of their concerns with the development, 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 back a bit.
“Every time I’d drive home on the I-295, I look at the B&M plant and assume that someday of condominiums are going to go there. And so it's exciting to know that there's going to be an educational institution 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 answers to community concerns from the developers.
IDEALS has held two roundtable meetings with the neighbors, in addition to one public meeting required by the planning process. But so far, several neighbors in the group are not satisfied with how IDEALS is addressing their concerns.
“I think a lot of people were just kind of blindsided,” Litchfield said. “The people from 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, regardless of how the neighbors feel and think about it.’ That's the vibe that I've gotten, anyway.”
“We recognize that we are coming into a community, and so we want to be very sensitive to that,” Reiche said. “This is a campus that's going to be there for a very long time, we hope is very successful there. And so I think having good relationship with the community, its neighbors is going to be critical.”
IDEALS also is asking the city to rezone the area from industrial to business, using a special zoning designation typically used for hospital complexes and universities, called Institutional Overlay Zones (IOZ), which allows the city to manage growth of these institutions over time.
City Planning Director Christine Grimando said this zoning designation requires a lot more work upfront 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 lays out things like how they're going to incorporate the neighborhood, what that relationship will be,” Grimando said. “And an extra sort of pre planning a lot of this what this overlay application is, requires a lot of work upfront to sort of show how they anticipate changing what they're how they're going to mitigate some of the impacts.”
Some neighbors question whether the IOZ designation is appropriate for a campus that’s including a hotel, restaurants, and residential high-rises. Reiche said its necessary to attract companies and students, and he said building on-site housing for students and staff is one way to reduce the traffic going to and from the campus.
“We need amenities there. We need this to be a place that people want to work and want to live and want to visit,” Reiche said. “We’re creating it for the mission of the institute, though, and that is the difference from what we've seen in other commercial projects.”
IDEALS projects that the Roux Institute’s student population could start with 1,750 students in the first five years and eventually grow to 4,500 in 20 years.
As for the iconic B&M cannery building, IDEALS will be seeking City Historic Landmark status and reuse the building as a business incubator space.
“Canning that occurred 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 to do tech incubation there for looking ahead to the next century would be really exciting.”
The zoning requests still have months of city planning review, followed by a city council review. Opportunities to hear public comments 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 city’s ability to transform into a 21st century hub.
“Cities are always changing, [but my job is] trying to make sure that the ways they change benefit the most people and contribute to a place,” Grimando said. “I think that an educational institution wanting to grow in the city is a very positive thing. When you think about economic development, and the robustness of any community, you never want it to be all one thing. Ideally you don't have a community that's only built on tourism… or just one industry. An educational institution doesn't just diversify things, it really brings, I think, a lot of associated benefits.”