A massive project to redevelop Portland’s eastern waterfront, many years in the making and estimated to cost $250 million, received final approval last week as it garnered praise from neighbors and Planning Board members.
Portland Foreside Development Co. is soon expected to begin the first phase of construction of a mixed-use development at the 10-acre site of the former Portland Co., which manufactured locomotives from 1845-1978. The last 19th century industrial complex on the city’s waterfront, it was deemed eligible for a National Register of Historic Places designation in 1974 by the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.
Among those praising the project were Planning Board member Maggie Stanley, who said at the board’s Jan. 28 meeting “it’s exciting to see these buildings that were falling into the ground to be reused and revitalized into a beautiful historic neighborhood.”
The developers purchased the property at 58 Fore St. from Phineas Sprague in 2014. Initial plans anticipated the demolition of 12 of the remaining buildings, according to Greater Portland Landmarks, which pushed for a historic district designation. The City Council in 2016 designated an area of the site encompassing seven of the 16 buildings then standing as a historic district.
The project generated much public input over the years, regarding such things as views, public access, and traffic. “Because of all of that, it has created a much better project than we could have imagined or the developers themselves could have imagined going on here,” Stanley said.
Board member David Silk said the project has taken a lot of work over six years and noted that it was guided by Master Plan for the Redevelopment of the Eastern Waterfront, adopted in 2002.
“It is exciting to see something that was envisioned in some shape, manner, form, some 20 years ago actually coming to fruition,” said Silk. “Planning does work, at least in terms of how the city saw this and incorporated it into the comprehensive plan.”
The master plan for the project was approved in 2016. It included rehabilitation of many of the historic buildings into retail, restaurant, event, office and residential spaces, as well as several new office buildings, a parking garage, apartments, and expansion of the adjacent marina.
The developers entered a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Transportation in 2015 to move a rail corridor that bisects the site closer to the water. The corridor is currently leased by Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Portland Foreside Development Co. President Casey Prentice submitted detailed development plans last fall for the first phase of the project. It includes a 95,000-square-foot office building with retail on the first floor; a 650-space parking garage; 14 residential units, and rehabilitation of several historic buildings.
These will be built on Blocks 1, 2, and 4 of the site, on the western and northern sides of the property. Blocks 3, 5 and 6 along the Eastern Promenade trail, as well as the northwest corner of Block 1, would be developed at a later time.
In the historic core of the property, the developers envision a marketplace where people can also learn about the history of the Portland Co. David Senus, of Portland Foreside, told planners historic Buildings 2 and 3 will be occupied by about two dozen vendors of prepared foods, while two to three larger commercial tenants would occupy historic Building 6. Cafe seating would separate the two buildings.
Building 12, a former pattern storehouse, has already been disassembled and cataloged, to be rebuilt in a more visually prominent position in Phase 1.
Sun Life U.S., an international financial services company, announced last September that it signed a lease to occupy the new office building, along with its subsidiary FullscopeRMS, and expects to move in 2022. The companies have more than 500 employees in Maine, who are either office-based or working from home, and will have capacity at the new building for up to 700.
Public comment Jan. 28 was largely supportive of the project.
Pam Jack of North Street said she has lived on Munjoy Hill for 15 years, and she has longed that someone would clean it up. She said the design is a “thoughtful blend of past and present.” Also backing the project was Julie Larry, representing Greater Portland Landmarks, who noted that the design aesthetic honored the industrial history of the complex.
Some commenters still expressed dismay at the impact of the development on water views.
“I live for looking at that view of the water coming down the hill,” Maggy Wolf of St. Lawrence Street said. “Right now I have a panorama of the whole corridor coming down Fore Street.” But after phase 1 is built that pedestrian view will be marred by a view of the top of a parking garage. The master plan indicates residences will be built above the garage at a later stage.
A major change from the initial plans submitted for Phase 1 and those approved Jan. 28 was the design of the staircase extending down from Fore street to a public plaza.
The city gained a 50-foot public easement in exchange for allowing demolition of one of the historic buildings. Planning Board members, planning staff and members of the public disapproved of the initial designs for a narrow staircase because it did not allow the public access to the full width of the easement.
The developer came back with a grand staircase design that expands below a viewing area at the top of the stairs to nearly 50 feet wide. Senus said he expects people to sit on the stairs, and that some wooden seating could be built into them. Planning Board members were pleased with this new design.
Some remaining details – design of canopies or covered entrances on the buildings to improve the pedestrian experience, and the final design of a lift to be built at the staircase for accessibility – still must be worked out. The board set conditions that these elements must be reviewed by the Historic Preservation Board, and granted a waiver of a requirement to bury utilities along Fore Street because the electric line is a main line that serves Munjoy Hill.
Concern about traffic
Potential traffic problems, and the potential for traffic congestion on already crowded streets near the waterfront, have been a constant concern through the multi-year development process.
A traffic movement permit obtained from the state in 2017 for the full development allows up to 506 “trip ends” – a trip into or out of the property – during the morning peak hour and 585 trip ends during the afternoon peak.
Some speakers expressed concern that this permit did not take into account other developments that have happened or been approved since the permit was granted.
In March 2019, payment-processing technology firm WEX opened new headquarters at the corner of Hancock and Thames streets, expecting 400 employees. A couple blocks north on Hancock street, veterinary technology firm Covetrus is building a new headquarters that the company says will ultimately support 1,200 jobs.
Christian Roadman, a planner for the city, explained at the meeting that each traffic movement permit application must take into account existing traffic as well as the impacts of developments that are “in the pipeline.” He also said the city is a co-applicant with several developers for an Eastern Waterfront Transportation District Traffic Movement Permit, which would take into account the 58 Fore St. development’s traffic impacts.
He said he expects that application to be approved by the state this month. As part of those permits, applicants must pay into a traffic mitigation fund that the city can use for traffic upgrades. The city also recently established transportation and other impact fees for new developments to add to this fund.
“There is a broader, more holistic view of traffic in the city that is both underway and is ongoing,” Roadman said.
Gorrill Palmer Consulting Engineers conducted a traffic assessment for the developers that calculated Phase 1 of the development would generate 273 trip ends during the morning peak hour, and 462 trip ends during the afternoon peak hour. But these forecasts were reduced by 18 percent to account for numbers expected to arrive at the site by foot, bus or bicycle.
Also, a tool of the National Cooperative Highway Research Program was used to calculate a shared-use reduction – an estimate of how many trips would involve visits to more than one destination without leaving the site. With these reductions, it forecasts 203 trip ends during the morning peak hour and 310 trip ends during the afternoon peak hour.
The traffic assessment also notes that this project is required as part of the Master Development Plan approval to pay a traffic impact fee of $650 per afternoon peak hour trip end.
Mike Tremblay, a senior engineer with the Public Works Department, said the entrances to a parking garage on Fore Street and Thames Street Extension will be monitored to compare actual use during peak periods with these estimates, and the city may adjust the impact fees if necessary.
For example, if the intersection of Fore and India streets becomes too backed up, he said, the city would be able to use the impact fees to address the situation.
The city has been exploring the use of “smart city” technologies to manage traffic, including adaptive traffic lights that have been successful in reducing congestion in Morrills Corner, where they were first installed, as well as the potential for an autonomous shuttle along Commercial Street to transport people from remote parking garages.
Planning Board Chairman Brandon Mazer said that if the project exceeds its state traffic movement permit, the developers would have to apply for an adjustment.
Another strategy to reduce traffic is to provide incentives for residential tenants to not own cars. Parking will be unbundled from rents, so that tenants may opt out of renting a parking space.
“With monthly parking rates around the city ranging from $175 to $225, this could be a substantial saving to the resident who opts out, and further encourage a car-free, transit-friendly lifestyle,” the developer’s engineering consultants, Woodard & Curran, wrote in response to comments from planning staff.
Tom Errico, a traffic engineer with structural engineering company T.Y. Lin, in a Jan. 10 email questioned the estimates of how many Sun Life employees would use the parking garage. He wrote the estimates that 227-238 parking spaces would be needed for Sun Life seem low for 468 employees. Woodard & Curran explained that the city ordinance and state permit estimate tools use square footage of the building to estimate parking demand, not the number of employees.
“Actual garage utilization will be monitored by the smart parking system of Phase 1 and this information will help inform parking demand for future phases of the development,” the consultants said.
The developers have set an additional target in the traffic management plan of a 5 percent trip reduction, or 10 trips during the morning and 16 trips in the afternoon. They hope to accomplish this by encouraging ride-sharing through a website and bulletin board or kiosk on the site, working with METRO to reroute a bus to Fore Street, and encouraging other modes of transportation, such as biking. Racks for 48 bikes are planned, and Senus said these would be monitored and more would be added if necessary.
The developers have also indicated they would support the introduction of streetcars in Portland.
“In addition to supporting existing multi-modal transit options, (Portland Foreside) commits to supporting the city of Portland and other interested organizations on the topic of transportation alternatives along Commercial Street from the eastern waterfront to the western waterfront,” Woodard & Curran wrote in response to planning staff comments.