Briefs from November and December 2007
By Chris Busby
December 14, 2007
Digger’s on the ropes
Digger’s and Liquid Blue, the Old Port bar and adjoining dance club on Fore Street, may never open their doors again. Earlier this year, the Portland City Council denied owner Tom Manning’s request to renew liquor and entertainment licenses for the businesses, citing a high number of fights there – several of which involved staff, and one that involved Manning himself.
Manning and his attorney, Gary Prolman, appealed the liquor license decision to state licensing authorities, who recently rejected the appeal. On Dec. 13, the Portland Zoning Board of Appeals heard, and unanimously denied, Manning’s appeal of the entertainment license decision.
Prolman said he intends to appeal both denials in Cumberland County Superior Court later today. A judge could allow the establishments to operate with the licenses while that appeal is heard, or not. In any case, the future looks grim for both businesses.
Comedy Connection (still) shuttered
There’s been no laughter at the Comedy Connection for the past week, and there’s no indication when the Old Port comedy club on Custom House Wharf will reopen.
Last Friday, the city posted a notice on the building prohibiting occupancy due to structural problems related to the decking and pilings beneath the popular club. Wharf owner Ken McGowan said earlier this week that the structural issues, identified by an engineer he hired himself, were being addressed, and that the Comedy Connection would be open Dec. 13. However, the club remained closed and posted last night.
Reached this morning, McGowan said he had no further comment. Club owner Oliver Keithly did not return a call seeking comment.
Earlier this week, city attorney Gary Wood said city inspectors were scheduled to assess the wharf on Wednesday. Wood could not be reached for comment this morning.
In addition to the Comedy Connection, the adjacent space formerly occupied by Boone’s Restaurant has also been posted to prohibit occupancy. Keithly took over that space last summer with the intention to make it a function room, but though there’s been some remodeling work done, there’s no indication that the premises ever opened.
The Porthole, a popular eatery next to the Comedy Connection that Keithly also owns, may also be posted in the near future, according to a note Wood sent to city councilors last week. And a fish processing business at the end of the wharf could meet the same fate, Wood noted.
Riverwalk garage a go; no word on condos, office
The day after news broke that construction on their parking garage had stalled, the Riverwalk development team sent out an e-mail saying financing and construction of the garage was back on track. As for the rest of the $100 million-plus project on Portland’s Eastern Waterfront? Well, that’s anyone’s guess.
The press release said Riverwalk developer Drew Swenson would be available for comment, but Swenson did not return press calls seeking comment this week.
December 4, 2007
Note: Clarification below. – Ed.
Olympia gets nod for Maine State Pier, megaberth
As expected, the new Portland City Council voted Monday night to begin negotiations with The Olympia Companies for the redevelopment of the Maine State Pier. An amendment also put construction of a so-called “megaberth” at the Ocean Gateway facility on the table when talks begin early next year.
Mayor Ed Suslovic, fresh from Monday afternoon’s inauguration, said the Council will hold a workshop in mid-January to discuss bargaining guidelines. Repeated attempts by Councilors Nick Mavodones, Jill Duson and new Councilor Dan Skolnik to impose specific negotiation conditions last night were repeatedly voted down by Suslovic and councilors Kevin Donoghue, Dave Marshall, Cheryl Leeman, and new Councilor John Anton, who called such conditions “premature,” given that councilors will be able to set bargaining guidelines later in the process.
Mavodones, Duson and Skolnik favored the plan put forward by Ocean Properties, the New Hampshire-based development company headed by Maine-native Tom Walsh, who partnered with former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell to bid on this project. The other councilors favored Olympia, but their vote to begin negotiations hardly amounted to an endorsement of Olympia’s proposal.
“I don’t like either proposal, frankly,” said Anton. He added that he favors Olympia’s “design approach,” a sentiment echoed by Donoghue.
Before any closed-door negotiations begin, it’s likely that the Council will hold a series of meetings and workshops to get additional public input on the property’s future and more information about a host of outstanding issues, like state laws potentially limiting the length of lease agreements and the type of development allowed on the site.
Suslovic did a pretty good job wielding the gavel for the first time, though he neglected to honor God and country by leading a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the meeting. God could not be reached for comment.
Clarification: Subsequent to the posting of this item, Mayor Susloviccalled to point out that he did, in fact, lead the Council in the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of Monday night’s meeting. The confusion on our part was due to the fact that Monday’s meeting technically began at 6:30 p.m., when the Council convened briefly in public prior to going into a closed-door session to discuss financial details related to the pier. Few members of the public witnessed this formality. Most, including this reporter, arrived for the public portion of the meeting, which began, as is customary, at 7 p.m., but did not begin with another recitation of the Pledge. We regret the error. Also, God called back, but we have yet to translate His comments from the Latin.
November 20, 2007
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the Brief below erroneously reported that the apartment complex under consideration would have only 40 units. According to developer Jeffrey Cohen, there would be 94 units total, 40 of them for tenants with low-to-moderate incomes. We regret the error. – C.B.
Waterview condos may be apartments instead
A condominium tower proposed for Portland’s Bayside neighborhood may be developed as rental apartments for families of low-to-moderate incomes and others. Developer Jeffrey Cohen said he has a preliminary agreement with a Florida-based developer who may take over the project early next year.
Dubbed The Waterview at Bayside, the project – planned for the corner of Cumberland and Forest avenues – was originally envisioned to be a 12-story building containing 94 luxury condos. That was almost four year ago. New plans envision 94 apartment units, with 40 being subsidized units for poor families.
In 2005, the development was delayed when Seaforth Housing, owner of the 15-story Back Bay Tower next door, filed suit to block it, claiming the city’s approval process was improper. Cohen prevailed, but has since struggled to secure financing, and current market conditions aren’t helping.
His potential development partner is Jeff Garno, of Epic Development, who did not return a call seeking comment. Cohen said Garno has applied for a tax credit through the Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA) to construct “a multi-family rental building with a low-to-moderate [income] component.”
“If he gets [the tax credit], we’ll have something to talk about,” said Cohen. “If he doesn’t, we don’t.” A decision by MSHA is expected late this year or early next year.
Cohen said his original plan is “still a possibility.” The long-vacant site “is going to get developed one way or the other, and it should start in the spring,” he said.
Portland officials have long said the city needs additional affordable housing options, but the potential change in plans is getting a cool reception in some circles. City Manager Joe Gray said he told Cohen’s attorney, former City Councilor and Mayor Nathan Smith, that “this project was sold to the city, and particularly to the neighborhood association, on the idea it was going to be condos.
“This is switching apples to oranges,” said Gray. “There has to be some community discussion before the city’s going to be prepared to support this change.”
Ron Spinella, chair of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, said he wants to know more details about the change in plans, but expressed some disappointment that the project may no longer be owner-occupied housing. He said the neighborhood needs a good mix of housing, both rental and owner-occupied, and Cohen’s project promised to help achieve that balance.
November 12, 2007
Suslovic is Mayor; Skolnik is sorry
Just weeks ago, radio commentators were calling City Councilor Ed Suslovic names over the airwaves, disgusted by his vote on the Maine State Pier issue. Henceforth, people will still be calling him names, but one of them will be Mr. Mayor.
The newly elected Portland City Council held an informal caucus last Friday to decide who among them will serve in the largely ceremonial post for the coming year. The vote was quick and unanimous.
Suslovic is expected to formally accept the mayorship and give a boring speech during inauguration ceremonies on Dec. 3. He’s also – perhaps jokingly – suggested that Kool-Aid be served during the post-inaugural gathering in City Hall.
His first mayoral pledge: to add the sugar.
In other post-election news, Councilor-elect Dan Skolnik has sent an e-note of apology to fellow candidates Tony Donovan and Bill Linnell for cussing them out on Election Day.
“It is never appropriate to use foul language,” he wrote on Nov. 8, the same day those assholes at WGME-TV ripped this story off from The Bollard. [See our Nov. 7 Gossip item here.] “As you know, this has been a very long and sometimes contentious campaign for City Council. We haven’t always agreed on the issues, but what we do agree on today is that my remarks were inappropriate.
“I hope you’ll accept my apology in the spirit in which it is meant,” the note continued, “and that is one of moving forward and working collaboratively towards a better Portland.”