Commercial Street was featured as one of the American Planning Association’s 10 Great Streets in America last year. The APA praised it for its mix of uses, “a dynamic yet precariously balanced amalgam” of historic preservation, tourism, condos, and working waterfront “crafted through years of debate and compromise.”
Hold onto a bollard, because that balance is tipping fast.
The Cumberland Self-Storage building is a brick behemoth (nearly 100,000 square feet) on the western end of the central waterfront. Yet, despite its stature, this is the kind of faceless structure people walk by without noticing, and it’s just as non-descript inside: five stories of dimly lit, identical, tin-box storage units — a box of boxes.
From a historical perspective, 254 Commercial St. is still more or less what it’s been for the past century: a storage facility. Built in 1900, the property is currently owned by Waterfront Maine, the New York-based company that also owns and manages the old Cabot Mill, now known as Fort Andross, on the Androscoggin River in Brunswick.
Just as Cabot Mill has been transformed into attractive office and retail space, the Cumberland Self-Storage building could be reborn into an inviting, mixed-use development before too long.
Under mounting pressure from wharf owners facing big repair bills and a shrinking fishing fleet, the Portland City Council is considering further relaxation of zoning standards that limit on-site parking and require waterfront buildings to maintain a significant portion of space for “marine-only” use, among other restrictions.
The Cumberland Self-Storage property meets the marine-only requirement by offering docking, parking and storage space to fishermen. But until zoning rules are loosened again, Waterfront Maine has little incentive to put its box of boxes to other use, said vice president Anthony Gatti.
“We just want to fit in with the rest of the Old Port,” Gatti said. He envisions restaurants and shops on the building’s first floor, topped by floors of office space. Current zoning allows offices on the top floor, but the renovation costs (elevators, plumbing, etc.) are prohibitively high. Gatti said it makes more sense to renovate the building from the ground up.
It’s a tempting vision. The building’s many windows, long cemented-over, could again let in light and ocean air, breathing new life into an interior that features tall ceilings, hemlock beams and brick work. That’s the kind of building you walk by and notice.
— Cotton Estes
About this series…
That’s My Dump! is dedicated to investigating run-down and/or abandoned properties in the Portland area. Stumped by a dump in your neighborhood? E-mail professional dump hunter Cotton Estes at email@example.com, and maybe she’ll poke around that one next.