Council bans chain restaurants, allows waterfront hotels
Moratorium on downtown bars postponed
By Chris Busby
Over the course of a six-hour meeting that, technically, spanned two days, the Portland City Council cast two votes that could have profound implications for the future of development in Maine’s largest city.
Early on in last night’s meeting, the Council voted 8-1 (with departing Councilor Karen Geraghty the lone dissenter) to change zoning on the Maine State Pier and adjacent land to the east in hopes of attracting new development. Among the changes approved: prohibiting hotels on the pier itself and land directly across from the pier, but allowing hotel development on the waterside of Commercial Street east of India Street. Hotels are specifically prohibited on the rest of Portland’s waterfront.
And at nearly 1 a.m. today, councilors approved a moratorium on chain or “formula” restaurants in the Old Port and downtown Arts District. The ban on chains will be effective until at least Nov. 19, by which time a Council committee is expected to suggest measures to address the impacts franchise eateries have on the city.
Action on a second ban aimed at bars and entertainment venues downtown was postponed earlier when its sponsor, Councilor Will Gorham, asked that his order be tabled to give a task force he chairs the opportunity to discuss it. The task force is considering a major expansion of the Old Port Overlay Zone, the special zoning district that limits the number of liquor licenses approved in the area and subjects some establishments to a special “seat tax” to cover police overtime costs.
The Old Port Nightlife Task Force Gorham chairs is holding a public hearing at 3 p.m. today, during which bar and restaurant owners potentially affected by the expansion are expected to voice their concerns. [A map of the latest expansion the task force considered can be viewed here.]
The Council’s waterfront vote could prove to be the more controversial of the two decisions. Following a short series of meetings with the Portland Planning Board – which unanimously panned the proposed changes – the Council’s three-member Community Development Committee (CDC) brought forward largely the same zoning it presented to the Council last month.
The debate ultimately boiled down to the question of whether the city should wait, further study the pier’s structural issues, and further define what uses should be allowed there, or relax the marine-only zoning and see what proposals private developers bring forward.
Councilors stressed that even after private companies respond to the city’s request for proposals to redevelop the publicly owned property, those proposals will be subject to rigorous review. For example, rather than the CDC first determining which proposals merit Council consideration, in this case the full Council will be involved from the beginning of the selection process.
Critics of the change aren’t convinced that once a proposal that fits the new zoning is selected, it won’t be a done deal. Some suspect a proposal by Ocean Properties – a national hotel development and management company with personal and political ties to Maine and Portland politics – is spurring and shaping the zoning change.
At a joint CDC-planning board meeting earlier this month, CDC chairman Jim Cloutier acknowledged that Ocean Properties’ proposal to build a “cruise-port” at the pier – a plan revealed to some councilors in private meetings in early 2006 – helped convince city officials a zoning change was necessary this year.
(Sources say Ocean Properties has since adjusted its vision for the site to include a landside hotel and less-infrastructure-dependent uses on the aging pier itself, like retail shops; this information, however, is anecdotal, and could not be confirmed. Ocean Properties has only acknowledged interest in any number of potential development opportunities in Portland.)
The move to prohibit hotels on or adjacent to the pier may have muffled calls to challenge the zoning change through a citywide referendum, or “people’s veto.” Having heard councilors discuss the change last night, and after correctly predicting the vote, former planning board member John Anton, the veto’s most vocal proponent, left the meeting unsure whether or not to press the issue further.
The vote to ban “formula” restaurants in the Old Port and Arts District was 6-3, with Councilors Ed Suslovic, Cheryl Leeman and Gorham opposed.
Councilor Geraghty, the ban’s sponsor, said the two-month moratorium will give city officials time to “chart a course for downtown.” The CDC will take up the issue in the coming weeks, and a permanent ban or less stringent restriction on franchises could be brought back to the Council before the end of the year.
“It’s really about our vision for Portland,” Geraghty said, “… whether we should have a conversation about it.”
Though some councilors suggested otherwise, Geraghty said her ban was not solely motivated by the possibility a Hooters will open in downtown Portland. AsThe Bollard reported last week, Geraghty is pursuing a clandestine campaign to prevent Hooters from opening downtown. A young man who attended Geraghty’s private meeting last week in City Hall presented councilors with a petition containing about 50 signatures of locals in favor of the temporary ban.
Michael Harris said the ban will not delay his efforts to bring a Hooters into the large downtown building partially occupied by The Stadium, the sports bar and restaurant he owns on Free Street. However, an attorney representing a party interested in opening a Keg Steakhouse and Bar franchise in Custom House Square, near the corner of Fore Street and Franklin Arterial, told councilors the ban “will kill this business.”
Suslovic questioned whether Geraghty’s ban satisfies the legal requirements the Council must meet to enact emergency moratoriums – specifically, whether a potential influx of chain restaurants can be considered to pose a threat of “serious public harm.”
Though Suslovic said he supports study of chain eateries’ impact on the community, he questioned the message sent by efforts to ban or restrict chains. When he owned his own business, Suslovic said, “I would have been insulted if someone told me, ‘We need to protect you from the competition.'”
Geraghty amended her original ban to define “formula” restaurants as chains with 20 or more locations that share the same menu, employee dress code, signs, restaurant design or other features. An earlier version of the order did not specify a specific number of locations.
After hearing of plans for a Keg Steakhouse in the Old Port – and after Councilor Nick Mavodones held a brief side conversation, just outside Council Chambers, with the attorney representing the potential franchisees – councilors further amended Geraghty’s ban to apply to chains with 30 or more locations in the United States.
According to its Web site, kegsteakhouse.com, there are over 90 Keg Steakhouses in North America, but the bulk of them are in Canada, mostly in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia. The site lists 18 locations in the United States – ten in Washington, four in Texas, and two each in Colorado and Arizona.
Assuming another 12 locations don’t open in the U.S. before Thanksgiving, The Keg will be exempt from the franchise ban.