The Old Port area on the waterfront in Portland, Maine, is an economic engine for the city. It's a tourist magnet, a busy commercial area, and a desirable downtown residential location. This spring, the Old Port and the nearby East End, with its scenic promenade, are humming with construction activity.
If investors James Brady and Casey Prentice get their way, that hum could increase to a roar in coming years. Brady and Prentice spent $14 million for a historic, but neglected, industrial parcel on the waterfront between the busy ferry landing and the scenic Promenade park. Now, they hope to build a mixed-use development with housing, shopping, and offices. But they say the project won't fly without a zoning change. And that change has nearby neighbors riled up.
Portland's city council is thinking the idea over, the Bangor Daily News reports (see: "Portland council weighs rezone for waterfront complex," by Maria Valvanis/CBS 13). "The city has an opportunity through this development to create something special; however there are a number of issues like the height of the buildings along Fore Street and the access of the public to the waterfront," city councilor David Brenerman said.
Residents on nearby Munjoy Hill fear that their views of the scenic Casco Bay would be blocked by high buildings, reports local station WCSH Channel 6 (see: "Residents say Portland development would cost views"). "The panoramic view of Portland Harbor, we really want that maintained. That is probably number one on our list, we would like free and open access to the historic buildings, it's a historic sit for sure. We don't want the nature of our beautiful waterfront trail to change," said Ann Rand from Soul of Portland, a group that wants to protect the views.
On the other hand, the parcel's owners say their project would benefit the city's economy, reports the Portland Press-Herald (see: "Developers: Waterfront project would give Portland $200 million boost," by Randy Billings). "Redeveloping the nearly 10-acre Portland Co. site would generate more than $200 million in one-time economic activity for the city, according to an economic impact analysis released Thursday that was based on nearby existing development rather than specifics of the developer's proposal," the paper reported. "CPB2 LLC, the development team headed by local businessmen Jim Brady and Casey Prentice, hasn't released details of its plan other than to say it would have a mix of commercial and residential uses."
The report's author, economist Chuck Lawton, said his estimate is based on the experience of other nearby parts of the city. Developer Jim Brady said, "This is a project that has the opportunity to help change the face of Portland in a really positive way, both from an economic standpoint, but also for quality of life."
"Tentative uses at the site include a Faneuil Hall-like market, restaurants, spaces for artists and tradesmen to make and sell their wares, an expanded marina, a hotel and residences," the Press-Herald reported (see: "Opponents of Portland Co. complex redevelopment show their feelings," by Randy Billings). "It was always envisioned to be developed into a mixed-use site," said Jeff Levine, the city's planning and urban development director.
But developer Brady is being deliberately vague about the details. "We are just in the zoning phase," Brady told Maine Public Broadcasting (see: "Plan to Redevelop Portland Waterfront Site Has Some Residents Worried," by Tom Porter). "He says it's difficult to design a definitive development plan until the zoning is in place. 'We could be a bit like the dog chasing its tail.'"
Oppenents of the rezoning picketed City Hall with signs reading, "No Blank Check." "The truth of the matter is they have submitted nothing," says neighbor Anne Rand. "We have no idea." And against Brady's indefinite vision, Rand sets the present reality — literally, her own view: "We're at the foot of St. Lawrence Street, where it comes into Fore Street. When you look out you can see the islands, you can the harbor, ferries, cruise ships - it's a beautiful, beautiful view," she says.
The Portland City Council had planned to take up the contentious rezoning issue at a public hearing in early April. But that process is now on hold, reports the Press-Herald (see: "Portland postpones public hearing, vote on waterfront parcel rezoning," by Randy Billings). "The postponement of Monday's hearing was announced in a news release after city officials recently realized that Portland's state-certified comprehensive plan expired in February, according to Jessica Grondin, City Hall's communications director," the paper reports. "Long-range comprehensive plans are used to guide zoning decisions. And given the level of scrutiny and strong opposition to the proposal, Grondin said, the city needs to recertify its comprehensive plan before proceeding with the rezoning. 'Nobody wanted a technicality like this to slip anything up,' Grondin said. The public hearing and vote on rezoning of the 10-acre property have been rescheduled for June 1, the city said in the news release."