Paper feeds flames of fear over Portland art center

This isn’t the first time a boneheaded decision involving a newspaper and the St. Lawrence Church has wrecked havoc on Munjoy Hill.

In the late 1990s, I lived on Congress Street, right across from the St. Lawrence. A non-profit group had recently acquired the historic church in hopes of converting it into a center for the performing arts, but it would be a couple years before the smaller of the two main buildings on the site, the parish hall, began hosting plays and musical acts. The group hoped the more spacious sanctuary portion of the structure, with its gorgeous stained glass and stone bell tower, would eventually become a performance space as well.

It was a sunny Sunday morning, and I told the woman who would soon be my ex-girlfriend that I was going up the street to buy The New York Times. On my way to Colucci’s I met Bobby Lipps, the St. Lawrence’s stalwart maintenance man, who offered to give me a tour. I eagerly accepted his offer.

Bobby has many fine qualities — he’s helpful, hard-working and a passionate advocate for the arts center — but conciseness is not among them. He moves slowly and speaks volumes. Oblivious to the passage of time, we inspected every room, including the basement, where the church’s stained-glass windows were being painstakingly restored. I remember the excellent acoustics inside the sanctuary, how a prayer mumbled from the dais could be heard even from the farthest pew. And I remember following Bobby as we ascended the steps of the stone tower to take in its magnificent views of the bay.

When my informal tour was over, I bounded up the steps to my apartment, eager to tell my partner about all that I’d seen. She was in no mood to listen. “Where the hell have you been?” she yelled. “You told me you were getting the paper. That was 45 minutes ago. I thought you were dead!”

So that relationship crumbled, and nearly a decade later the sanctuary did the same. The non-profit arts group, Friends of the St. Lawrence Church, was unable to raise the millions of dollars necessary to save the century-old sanctuary before it deteriorated to the point where it had to be demolished.

Flash forward four years. The Friends have secured commitments from donors to build a new performance space where the sanctuary once stood. Earlier this month, they presented preliminary plans to the city’s Historic Preservation Board. In the architect’s rudimentary rendering, the new building looks like a giant purple Tetris block dropped onto a whitewashed streetscape. Not surprisingly, some board members and neighbors expressed concern that the structure wouldn’t fit with its surroundings.

The initial rendering of the St. Lawrence’s proposed addition.

Munjoy Hill resident Cliff Gallant went further, calling the proposed building “an abomination” with “a fascist modern design.” Gallant’s boneheaded comment went viral when some editor at the Portland Press Herald inconsiderately gave the word “fascist” prominent play in the headline of a Dec. 6 article about the meeting.

What should have been a straightforward story was hyped with hate speech. The article needlessly alarmed and polarized a neighborhood whose residents are notoriously averse to gentrification and protective of their parking rights — the proposed 400-seat performance hall could draw well over 200 vehicles to the area, forcing some nearby residents to walk an extra block or two when there’s an event.

Lost amid the uproar are several pertinent facts.

• The design is in its very early stages, and the Friends are more than willing to adjust it in response to neighbors’ concerns, as demonstrated at a neighborhood meeting they held last Monday night, during which improved architectural renderings were unveiled.

An updated rendering of the St. Lawrence’s proposed addition.

• The Friends already have a city-approved parking plan for the new venue, which includes off-site parking and shuttle service, and that plan is also open to modification based on neighborhood feedback.

• Cliff Gallant is not just a crank. He’s a columnist for the Press Herald’s in-town rival, The Portland Daily Sun. Gallant told me he was just trying to make people passionate about the project.

A rendering of the condo project at the bottom of Munjoy Hill proposed by S. Donald Sussman.

• Reporters looking for examples of irresponsible development should check out the bottom of Munjoy Hill. That’s where an incredibly wealthy and powerful man has bought nearly half of an old working-class neighborhood, historically home to Jewish and Italian immigrants, and left numerous buildings in vacant, ghetto conditions for years, while he ponders erecting a five-story, modernist condo project that would stick out like a strange thumb. I’m pretty sure the Herald’s editors know this character. His name is S. Donald Sussman.