Our Viewpoint: No reason to rush high-rise over the Old Port

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Portland’s Old Port was revitalized beginning in the 1970s, restored to what is now an attractive, walkable area of low-rise brick buildings, restaurants, stores, and coffee shops that draw tourists from around the world.

As Yankee magazine described it in one of the many tourism guides that have promoted the area, “Wandering the Old Port district in Portland, Maine, you almost feel as though you’ve stepped onto a movie set. With its cobblestone streets, 19th-century brick buildings, fishing piers and location overlooking the Fore River, the southeastern side of Portland has a historical feel and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, while its boutiques, restaurants, bars and nightlife make it a popular destination for modern-day tourists.”

Locals and tourists alike enjoy the open, walkable feel of the area, where even on a winter afternoon sunshine streams in over the rooftops. But these often carefully restored buildings could soon be overshadowed by a high-rise building right in the middle of the Old Port.

Developer Tim Soley has asked the city for a zoning change that would allow buildings in that B-3 zone to rise as high as 299 feet, to accommodate 23 stories. The zoning amendment would pave the way for his proposed high-rise building, which would be just west of Exchange Street, between Middle and Fore Streets, right in the heart of the Old Port.

The proposed site is adjacent to parts of the historic district, where building height is capped at 65 feet. A tall, thin high-rise would be out of character and change the area forever.

Portland is in the middle of an effort to update its zoning code, and it would seem premature to make such a profound change in rules governing the city’s most distinctive district before this process is complete. Zoning rules, although often controversial, are meant to provide guidelines for appropriate development and can help preserve the character of the city.

The vitality of Portland depends not just on the engine of economic growth and development, but in the preservation of the character of the built environment, regulated by zoning. We hope planners and city councilors won’t hastily accept such a profound alteration to the rules governing the Old Port before that review process is complete.