The end of the working waterfront?
How non-marine development on the Maine State Pier could change the character of Portland’s harbor
By Colin Woodard
The Maine State Pier is said to be falling into Casco Bay. Now, after years of neglect, the city has a new strategy to save the 85-year old structure and its prized deepwater berth, a plan with reverberations that will be felt from one end of Commercial Street to the other.
The public pier is the only place a thousand-foot ship can tie up, take on water, or load and unload cargo. Faced with a $13-to-$20 million repair bill—the result of decades of deferred maintenance—the City Council decided last fall to open the marine industrial site to private development, including hotels, restaurants and office buildings forbidden to other pier owners by the city’s waterfront zoning regime.
“It was going to fall into the water in 10 or 20 years unless it was fixed,” said City Councilor Jim Cloutier, a real estate attorney who chairs the Council’s Community Development Committee, which is reviewing two private development proposals for the property.
The idea is to preserve the Maine State Pier’s traditional function as a berth for large ships, but to get private developers to pay for its repair and upkeep in exchange for the right to build commercial structures there.
The Olympia Companies, a Portland-based development firm, and Ocean Properties, a much larger hotel and resort development company headquartered in Portsmouth, have submitted competing proposals for the pier site—both of which are $90 million projects that include hotels, office buildings, restaurants and amenities for cruise ship passengers.
If the City Council decides to allow one of these plans to move forward this summer, that precedent could
open the rest of the waterfront to more non-marine development.
Many piers and wharfs face maintenance issues similar to those at the Maine State Pier. The problem: zoning intended to keep Portland a working harbor has made it difficult for private pier owners to make enough money to keep their assets in shape.
“Pier owners down here feel their hands are tied, because it’s so expensive to maintain this kind of infrastructure, and right now the fishing industry is not capable of paying for it,” said Hank Soule, manager of the Portland Fish Exchange, the publicly owned, wholesale fish auction that’s struggling due to steadily declining landings. “I think everyone agrees that zoning went a little too far and wasn’t financially viable.”
By granting the city an exception to its own strict waterfront zoning rules, the City Council has reopened one of the most divisive issues in Portland politics: the question of what types of development should be allowed along the water side of Commercial Street.
That debate last flared 20 years ago, when citizens rose up to halt the rise of condominiums on Portland’s piers by approving a referendum that placed a moratorium on new non-marine waterfront development. When that ban was lifted five years later, it was replaced with zoning that heavily restricted non-marine uses.
Now, once again, the future of the working waterfront that built, and in many ways still defines our city, is
It comes down to fairness. “The city’s been telling all these other property owners that they can’t build this or that on the water, and now they’ve gone and done it on their own,” said Mark Usinger, president of A.L. Griffin, a chandlery on Hobson’s Wharf. “You can’t have it both ways.”
“There’s an inherent unfairness there,” agreed Cyrus Hagge, the head of a property management company, who’s served on the Portland Planning Board and several city waterfront committees. “How can the city say that they will have their cake and ice cream and nobody else can have any?”
Some observers find it all the more egregious that the Maine State Pier was excluded from extensive city
zoning and planning efforts applied to the surrounding waterfront.
“I told them that the Maine State Pier is the doughnut hole—you can’t figure out what to do around it until you’ve solved that problem,” recalled Phineas Sprague, Jr., who owns Portland Yacht Services and the nine-acre Portland Company complex east of the pier. “Now, years later, they throw the pier back in play and completely changed the environment for others.”
“The waterfront is an asset in its totality, and it should have been discussed as such,” said former planning board member John Anton, who’s running for a City Council seat this year. “I think the hidden agenda is to open up the discussion of waterfront zoning once Maine State Pier is put to bed, and to me it has to be
done together. Nobody’s taking a step back and saying, ‘What is the value of the waterfront to the city, and what does it need?’”
“I hope somebody, somewhere, is going to take a look at that whole end of Commercial Street,” said City Councilor Cheryl Leeman. “I thought we had a plan. What happened to the plan?”
The proposed Maine State Pier redevelopment projects may have come later, but they fit the broad vision laid out in a state-funded waterfront study finished in 2001, according to city ports and transportation director Jeff Monroe. One element of that vision was for passenger operations—cruise ships and ferries—to be clustered at the eastern end of the waterfront. The two pier redevelopment proposals now under consideration both assume large cruise ships will continue to use the pier, right next to the publicly funded, $21 million Ocean Gateway cruise ship and ferry terminal currently under construction.
“It’s been a very holistic approach,” Monroe said. “The proof is in the pudding: people come from all over the u.s. to Portland, Maine, to see how we not only preserved our working waterfront, but also encouraged compatible development, maintained the infrastructure, and built the business of the port.”
Cloutier argues that the new zoning for the Maine State Pier is as restrictive as the rules governing the Central Waterfront Zone, which stretches east from the International Marine Terminal beneath the Casco Bay Bridge to Casco Bay Lines’ operations on the state pier. Zoning in this area was loosened last year to allow non-marine businesses to occupy more square footage in waterfront buildings, so long as they do not interfere with water-dependent operations. New non-marine structures can be built if they are located more than 75 feet from the water’s edge—a change made in recognition of the fact marine-related development has been stagnant for decades.
The city’s new zoning at the Maine State Pier is functionally equivalent, Cloutier said, allowing development away from the water’s edge that complements, rather than displaces, traditional marine uses. “It’s a continuation of the waterfront rules that Portland developed and very stringently applied over the years,” he said.
That’s debatable. To cite the most obvious difference, zoning in the central waterfront specifically prohibits hotels; zoning for the Maine State Pier property pointedly does not.
Given the 75-foot restriction, two central waterfront locations lend themselves particularly well to hotel development: the parking lot for DiMillo’s Floating Restaurant, on Long Wharf, and the Fishermen’s Wharf parking lot just west of that site.
On the heels of commercial development at the Maine State Pier, could these properties also be allowed to sprout hotels? That prospect looks more possible every day. “It’s not particularly likely that the Council would turn those down,” said Cloutier.
Ocean Properties, which has developed scores of hotels and resorts in the U.S. and Canada, previously approached the DiMillo family with an offer to develop their lot, the company’s vice president for development, Bob Baldacci, confirmed.
“We had discussions with the DiMillo family on and off, and looked at sites up and down the waterfront for some time,” said Baldacci, brother of Gov. John Baldacci. Faced with the zoning restrictions at DiMillo’s, Ocean Properties shifted its attention to the Maine State Pier, and began drafting plans for a hotel there as early as 2005.
Steve DiMillo said he wants the city to extend to his property “the same zoning they gave themselves” at the Maine State Pier. He expects the City Council to take action on this “after the dust settles” from the Maine State Pier redevelopment process.
The lot to the west of DiMillo’s is owned by Shipyard Brewing Company president Fred Forsley and his financial partner, Gordon Hurtubise, of Cape Elizabeth.
Forsley is a partner in the mammoth Riverwalk waterfront development project—a complex of condos, townhouses, offices, restaurant and retail space—now under construction east of the Maine State Pier. He has strong personal and professional ties to Bob Baldacci, who previously worked on the Riverwalk proposal, and Michael Liberty, whose waterfront condo developments sparked the moratorium 20 years ago. [See “Tangled web of interests on the eastern waterfront,” June 22, 2006, in the News section of thebollard.com.]
Forsley declined to speak with The Bollard for this article. DiMillo said Forsley and Hurtubise intend to
develop their lot “someday.”
Asked whether development of the Maine State Pier will compel the city to further loosen zoning restrictions in the central waterfront, Leeman said, “I think there’s a case to be made for that. We’re going to have to go back and reassess what’s permitted and what isn’t.”
“We are setting a precedent,” said City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, whose Council district includes the pier and most of the waterfront.
Donoghue isn’t sold on the idea of the Maine State Pier’s private redevelopment, and is wary of the plans for non-marine uses that may follow in its wake, but noted, “it’s hard to say no to the tax revenue that could be created by more extensive uses of Portland’s waterfront.”
Depending who you ask, the waterfront’s shift from fishing and marine-industrial uses to offices, restaurants and hotels is either the downfall of the working waterfront or its saving grace.
Usinger, the ship chandler, thinks it spells disaster. “There are five dirty words that we’re not allowed to say here, but brace yourself because I’m going to say them: November, December, January, February, and March,” he quipped. “The whole development down there is predicated on the cruise ship business, but people don’t come here on vacation in those months, and yet we’re going to have to pay for [the Ocean Gateway terminal] and maintain it and heat it, and there’s no money for the elderly, the schools, the homeless, or the parks.”
“I think it will rip the remaining guts out of the waterfront zoning that’s left, and there are plenty of people who have been trying to gut it any way they can,” Usinger added. “We have to be here on the water to make deliveries to the ships—we can’t go to Scarborough or Buxton—and yet people like us can never pay the kinds of rents an accountant or a doctor’s office or an insurance company can afford to be on the waterfront.”
Others are not nearly so gloomy. “Anything you do is better than nothing,” said Sprague. He said his complex—built as a locomotive foundry in 1846 —is deteriorating because zoning in what he calls the “Waterfront Sprague Underutilization Zone” prevents him from attracting the type of tenants who could afford the rent necessary to support its maintenance.
“I’m all for saving the working waterfront,” Sprague said. “Save me! Help! I have 160,000 square feet of buildings with the roof leaking.”
“We’re not saving the working waterfront, we’re just deferring maintenance on things so they are falling down,” Sprague continued. “The city’s tried to hold themselves to this standard they created and, like the rest of us, have found that there are no tenants because the [marine] industries have gone or moved. Finally they were bleeding so badly they couldn’t ignore it anymore.” The working waterfront debate, he said, became separated from economic realities, and needs to be reexamined with a clear eye.
The economic reality, said Hagge, is that the traditional marine sector contracted, and just isn’t going to reoccupy the buildings on Portland’s waterfront.
“People have to understand that much of the old, industrialized working waterfront is a thing of the past, for the same reason that manufacturing jobs are leaving the country,” he said. “The real key is not to lose your water’s edge, but you can have marine-compatible uses elsewhere.”
“We need spaces for boats to berth, for unloading and loading provisions, for the Fish Exchange and the fish processors, but I think we can do all that and still support other uses on the waterfront,” said City Councilor Ed Suslovic, a former state legislator who has advocated for working waterfronts and the groundfishing industry.
“In Halifax, they have container shipping, shipbuilding, the military, cruise ships, hotels, and casinos all in close proximity to one another,” Suslovic added. “Everyone just has to have the understanding that if you have a hotel on the waterfront, you can’t complain about the noise of nighttime ship traffic.”
When once the term “waterfront hotel” was blasphemy in Portland, it now falls from the lips of the working waterfront’s staunchest defenders.
“We need better balance,” said Soule, the Fish Exchange manager. “A hotel isn’t necessarily going to harm the fishing industry … Everyone really can get along if they choose to.”
Bollard editor Chris Busby contributed reporting to this article.