Initial plans presented last week for redevelopment of the historic Portland Company complex on the eastern waterfront elicited concerns about traffic and accessibility from residents and city staff.
Phase 1 of the project presented by Portland Foreside Development Co. includes construction of an office building and parking structure, and renovation of existing buildings to yield more than 100,000 square feet of office space, as well as retail, service and restaurant space, an event venue, parking for 722 cars, and 14 housing units.
City staff and consultants raised three primary concerns: light pollution, increased impervious surfaces and traffic management. Residents of Munjoy Hill expressed concern about the impact of traffic, especially in light of several other large developments in the area.
David Senus, representing the developer, Denise Cameron of Woodard Curran, and others presented the plan at a Planning Board workshop Nov. 26. Cameron said a traffic analysis prepared by Gorrill Palmer for Phase 1 projects about 40 percent of the number of morning trips and 53 percent of evening trips that are already permitted for the full project.
But city staff raised concerns about traffic after developers submitted a required transportation demand management plan for reducing unnecessary vehicle trips. That plan was found lacking by Bruce Hyman, the city’s transportation program manager.
“(The plan is) generally vague and weak on the types of actual programs/incentives that will be offered and in its commitments,” Hyman said. “This can be difficult at this stage but with at least one known larger office tenant/employer, more commitments can and should be provided in the plan.”
Munjoy Hill resident Karen Snyder questioned how the traffic plan would accommodate employees of Sun Life Financial U.S., which has committed to lease offices in the planned office building at the western corner of the complex, in addition to residents and tourists.
Cameron said the plan proposes traffic reduction through vehicle sharing, employer incentives, vendor promotions, education and a coordinator position. Further, she said, improvements will be made to the Eastern Promenade pedestrian and bike path: it will be moved closer to the water, and there will be several entry points to the site from that path.
City staff said an independent traffic study is also underway.
The 10 acres on the eastern waterfront at 58 Fore St. was formerly the site of the Portland Company, a 19th century locomotive manufacturing operation, which included a machine shop, brass foundry and boiler house.
The proposed design for Phase 1 is in line with a master plan approved in 2016, except for one change: An iconic gable-ended building built in 1895 as an addition to the complex storehouse will be moved about 50 feet so that it is set apart from a planned office building, and the historic district boundary would be redrawn to encompass it in its new location.
The former storehouse has already been disassembled and catalogued, with the approval of the Historic Preservation Board. In its new location, it is intended to be a visual point of interest at one of the main entrances to the project, from Thames street and the Eastern Promenade walking path.
Another major entrance will be a staircase leading down into the complex from Fore Street. This will be built in an area that has been granted to the city as a public easement in exchange for demolishing another historic building; it is intended to provide the public a view of and access to the waterfront.
Concerns were raised about accessibility, but because of the 17-foot grade change there, a wheelchair accessible ramp would have to be 230 feet long and would not be feasible. Instead, Senus suggested including public elevators in adjacent buildings.
Regarding stormwater runoff, Cameron noted that while the site has not had stormwater management in the past, a stormwater filtration system will be installed on the property. Water will be collected through a series of catch basins and drains and be directed two major subsurface underground storage tanks, and then be filtered onsite before discharge.
The architectural design of Phase 1, which features granite base levels with glass and robust, dark metal framing on the upper floors to create what the developers call an expression of “drama and strength,” drew compliments from the planners. Urban Designer Caitlin Cameron characterized the design as “contemporary architecture that has references to some of the patterns and characteristics of the industrial historical buildings but in a quite sophisticated and referential way without being gimmicky or historicist.”
Board members commended the developers for preserving historic elements, such as the layout of an alleyway, and a boiler, and for including historic references such as rails inlaid in the plaza leading to one of the historic buildings.
But they asked Portland Foreside to consider adding more trees and green landscaping to the plaza areas, burying power lines, using bird-safe glaze on the building windows, and integrating more impervious surfaces. They also asked the developers to think about how undeveloped areas will be landscaped between building phases and how they might mitigate skateboard use on the site.
The developer will have the opportunity to respond to these concerns with revisions to its plan, and these and other issues will be addressed in future workshops.
Carol Connor of Munjoy Hill said she was excited about the project, but felt some of the board’s decisions were not being made for people who already live in the city. She was a boater all her life and said she was priced out of keeping her 19-foot boat at a new marina, built and operated by Portland Foreside adjacent to the Portland Company site in 2017.
“I’m no longer part of this, I can’t be part of this,” she said. “So that is a real concern I have, about who is this really for?”