S. Donald Sussman just pulled the rug out from under Portland’s India Street neighborhood, leaving residents, business owners and even his own realtor scratching their heads in disappointment and dismay. After nearly half a decade of benign neglect on his watch, it looks like the fabulously wealthy hedge fund manager, Maine media mogul, political cash machine and philanthropist will be content to leave much of the small neighborhood he owns at the foot of Munjoy Hill in dilapidated conditions for at least another year.
The Other Donald, as I affectionately call him, has suspended plans to build a six-story condominium and commercial complex between Franklin and Hampshire streets. The project would have included 26 residential units, 15 of which had already been reserved by hopeful buyers.
I noted in a column last month that this neighborhood was historically home to working-class Italian and Jewish immigrants. Sussman’s project would have improved the appearance of the area, where many of the multi-family homes have deteriorated over the decades, but most working people could not have afforded to live there. The one-bedroom condos cost upwards of $300,000, and the two-bedroom units approached — and, in some cases, exceeded — half a million bucks.
Sussman and his wife, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, own a home in this neighborhood and actually live in it from time to time (Pingree’s official residence is on North Haven). As detailed in a cover story I wrote for The Bollard last January (“Donald Sussman’s Dumps”), Sussman was drawn to this part of town five years ago by Kevin Mattson, a politically connected real estate developer.
Sussman and Mattson formed a limited liability company in 2008 called Rebeco, whose name refers to the general shape and location of the area they planned to rebuild: the rectangle below Congress Street. Then they went on a buying spree, snapping up properties for, in some cases, several times their assessed value. City tax records currently list eight properties in the neighborhood owned by Rebeco. Several of them are vacant, and nearly all still look dumpy.
In 2010, Sussman took full control of Rebeco (Mattson described their split as amicable), but he still didn’t have a plan. Meanwhile, the neighbors were getting anxious. “The allowing of over 11 units to fall into disuse and be padlocked, and for the buildings to receive no further maintenance, is allowing the continuation of urban blight in this neighborhood,” said Hugh Nazor, president of the India Street Neighborhood Association, which formed in part to address the problems Sussman’s properties were causing.
Nazor and his neighbors were encouraged when Sussman, represented by his lawyer, Tom Federle, reached out to them two years ago to get their ideas for the project. Nazor called the plans that resulted “a wonderful compromise” that addressed the pressing need to bring more residents to the area.
Now the neighbors are singing a different tune. “We’re very disappointed that, for various reasons that have not been explained to us … Mr. Sussman has decided not to proceed with the project at this time,” Nazor told me this week.
Nazor said he got word of the project’s fate “some weeks ago,” but Ed Gardner of Ocean Gate Realty, who’d been selling condos in the project for months, only found out from Federle this past Monday. “He said Donald just decided not to do the project and doesn’t want to develop it. That’s the only explanation we were given, unfortunately,” Gardner said.
Sussman’s decision is “a huge disappointment” for the would-be condo owners, who already put $1,000 down to secure their unit, said Gardner, who added that the deposits will be returned.
Federle told me the project is not necessarily dead but definitely postponed, due to “a whole range of issues,” none of which he could clearly articulate. A statement Sussman released shed no additional light. “[A] variety of factors makes the proposed condominium project not quite ready yet, so we are hitting the ‘pause’ button for now,” it reads in part.
So the neighborhood gets no good answers, no new neighbors, no idea when redevelopment might begin and no improvements to Sussman’s crummy buildings in the interim. Meanwhile, nearly a dozen potentially habitable, affordable apartments remain vacant while hundreds of homeless people shiver through another Portland winter.
I appreciate Sussman’s efforts to improve this city, and I don’t think he proposed the condo project just to make a buck. He doesn’t need any more bucks, but that’s part of the problem. He’s wealthy enough to treat this neighborhood like his personal Monopoly board. Neighbors fed up with the blight his delays perpetuate can only wait for him to roll again, but for them, this is not a game.