Public pier talks tilted toward private development
Cheaper options not fleshed out, megaberth off the table
By Colin Woodard
Following two failed attempts at private development, members of the public will finally get their turn to work on plans for the future of the city-owned Maine State Pier during a four-hour workshop on Saturday. But participants will find it difficult to assess the costs and benefits of any option short of the same kind of major private development previously proposed. That’s because the city has not priced out the cost of any option that doesn’t involve building a multi-story hotel or office building on the pier.
Even the cost estimates the city has prepared are suspect. Those estimates range from $22 to $26 million, $8 million more than private developers Ocean Properties and The Olympia Companies estimated the pier would need to support their projects.
The city’s estimates sound way too high, said attorney Harold Pachios, who represented Ocean Properties in the months before its bid for the pier fell apart. OP’s engineers estimated a total repair cost of only $18 million in 2006, when construction materials were more expensive. “Ocean Properties is in the construction business — they are their own contractors and have built piers and cruise ship piers elsewhere — so I’m very confident of their numbers,” Pachios said.
The city’s estimates were developed by the Louis Berger Group, an engineering consultant the city retained last year during negotiations with Olympia.
The Berger Group determined that the cost of strengthening the northern, shore-side section of the pier so it could support a five-to-six-story structure would be about $11 million. Repairing the southern half of the pier to accommodate a two-story building was estimated to cost $11.8 million.
A recently envisioned alternative by which a sizeable section at the end of the pier would be removed to create more berthing area was estimated to cost $8.4 million.
The cost of repairing the pier’s main feature — the 1,000-foot deepwater berth on its eastern side — is estimated at just $2 million, including the replacement of pilings, repair of the concrete deck, a new fendering system, and the instillation of four dolphins, a type of mooring structure. The firm determined that no work would be necessary in the short term to strengthen pilings and decking beneath Compass Park, on the southwesterly side of the pier. [Memos detailing the cost estimates can be downloaded from this site.]
No estimates were developed for the cost of restoring either the northern or southern section of the pier to support their current use or a less-intensive use, such as a public park. That’s because the process has been guided by the “standing assumption” that a private developer will take over the public pier, said Penny Littell, the city’s planning and development director.
No private developers have publicly expressed interest in the pier since OP bowed out last January, and the Council has not yet decided whether to seek additional development proposals.
The question of whether the pier should continue to be the city’s primary berth for cruise ships has also been muddied by the way city officals designed the public process. The process focuses on the Maine State Pier while ignoring Ocean Gateway, the publicly owned marine passenger terminal to its east where the public meetings on the Maine State Pier’s future have taken place.
Building a so-called “megaberth” to dock cruise ships at Ocean Gateway, as envisioned in the facility’s original plans, is estimated to cost about $6 million. The city is said to be pursuing federal funding to build the megaberth as part of Maine’s share of the federal stimulus package, but no commitment has yet been secured.
The exclusion of Ocean Gateway from the Maine State Pier process concerns some city councilors. “The discussion of what we ask Maine State Pier to do strikes me as necessarily informed by whether or not we think Ocean Gateway is complete,” said Councilor John Anton.
City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, whose district includes the eastern waterfront, said the narrow geographic focus of the public pier process discourages discussion of how development in other parts of the city and eastern waterfront could provide revenue to fund pier repairs. But Donoghue added that he was confident attendees at Saturday’s workshop will be willing to “color outside the lines.”
Like the Portlanders they represent, councilors also lack cost estimates for repairing the pier to support anything less than a mega-project.
“These numbers were cranked out during the lease negotiations with Olympia, which is why they don’t show a no-development approach,” said Councilor Dave Marshall. “Now that those negotiations are out of the way, it would be in the best interests of the city to study the scenarios for what it would cost to fix this without building a hotel on top of it.”
Tom Valleau, the city’s former port director, said lower-cost solutions will likely be more appropriate for Portland at this time. “This pier is deteriorating, and it’s going to keep on deteriorating, [so] we’ve got to take some steps to get ahead of it or it’s going to be so pricey we will never be able to manage it,” he said. “But I am confident there are ways to put it into proper condition for cruise ship berthing that would be much less expensive than $22-to-$26 million.”
Valleau is hardly alone in advocating for a less-is-more approach. The Portland Press Herald, previously a cheerleader for private development on the pier, has changed its tune in light of the public comments made during the recent pier meetings. The headline and subheading of an April 1 editorial by Greg Kesich say it all: “Maine State Pier sessions make a strong case for doing nothing; Keeping the pier for public access could end up being more valuable than developing it.” [The Bollard advocated a similar approach in an editorial last September.]
The pier is clearly in rough shape, but the city appears to have only a vague idea of the extent of the deterioration and the cost of shoring it up for the type of minimal use the public wants to consider. Requests for access to all engineering studies and cost estimates related to the pier yielded a very limited dossier: two visual “overview” surveys conducted in 2000 and 2005, and an August 2006 estimate by the Portsmouth firm Appledore Marine Engineering based entirely on “a cursory review of previous condition surveys.”
The Appledore review estimated that $1.65 million would be needed “to maintain [the pier’s] structural integrity” by replacing the deck and a concrete skirt wall. The firm suggested the city could reasonably expect to spend an additional $500,000 on “future repair projects” every five years. To prevent further deterioration, Appledore also recommended that all 5,000 timber piles supporting the pier be jacketed in special plastic over the next 5 to 15 years, at a total cost of between $5 and $10 million.
The report cautioned that to “more accurately understand the costs … a comprehensive condition survey of the entire structure should be completed.” In another report, Appledore estimated that survey would cost $150,000.
Littell said such a survey has not been undertaken, but that repair costs would be related to what the city decides to build (or not build) on the pier. “The more you build, the more expensive the repairs,” she said. “If we wanted to use it as a park, presumably there would be minimal repairs to put into it.”
Following Saturday’s workshop, a presentation reflecting the public’s input will be given to the City Council on April 29. Mayor Jill Duson and Councilors Cheryl Leeman, Nick Mavodones and Dan Skolnik did not respond to interview requests for this article.
Colin Woodard is an award-winning journalist and author of The Lobster Coast.