Despite lingering concerns from some Munjoy Hill residents and several code violations from the city, a major waterfront development in Portland’s East End is moving forward.
Developers said they are confident they will get the approvals they need for the complete buildout of 58 Fore St. after the code problems were reviewed in a recent Planning Board workshop.
The project by Portland Foreside Development is a long-planned mixed-use and marina development spanning more than 10 acres along the waterfront, on what was formerly the Portland Company property.
It will eventually have 160,000 square feet of new office space, 100,000 square feet of new ground-level retail space, housing, a waterfront hotel and spa, more than 1,000 parking spaces in garages that will largely be hidden or out of sight, and the 200-slip Fore Points Marina.
Casey Prentice, Portland Foreside’s managing partner, last week said the goal is to have most buildings with completely retail-dedicated first floors – including restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, a public market, and other services – while upper floors provide space for offices and residences.
Prentice said the vision came from recognizing that traditional office buildings and wholly residential condo buildings offer very little public use, and most people would never set foot in them.
“We need space for the public to engage with,” Prentice said.
The project recently had Planning Board workshops on proposed amendments to essentially allow the development to move forward with current operations while conceding that the buildout hasn’t gone as swiftly as planned.
The project is seeking an interim condition of approval for its master development plan – which was approved in 2016, two years after Portland Foreside bought the property from Phineas Sprague – to allow temporary structures the developers have already built. That approval would last for three years before the development reverts to the original master plan.
Developers are also seeking a zoning amendment to allow a restaurant associated with Fore Points Marina, where they have already been operating what amounts to a functioning restaurant and bar along the Eastern Promenade Trail.
Prentice, who also owns Evo restaurant, said the dining and drinking services that have been at the marina for the past two summers existed via a “loophole” and were necessary because of the coronavirus pandemic. He said the restaurant was ready to reopen at the height of the pandemic before Gov. Janet Mills delayed those reopenings.
To use food that was already purchased, the business bought a trailer and used Evo as a “caterer” for the Marina, he said. Proceeds went to local nonprofit organizations, which allowed them to open the marina catering service to the public.
“We served tens of tens of thousands of people out of a 10-foot food truck,” Prentice said. “People loved it.”
The rezoning application was submitted in January, and Prentice said what they are doing on the property is “the intent of the Eastern Waterfront zone,” which is to give people a place to recreate and gather.
The zone change would open more of the marina area to be public, he added.
During an Oct. 26 Planning Board meeting, David Senus, director of planning and design for the development, said the interim condition is necessary for the buildout of the master plan. He said there have been complications, including a three-party land swap between Portland Foreside, the city, and the Maine Department of Transportation, that has to be finalized.
“With all that said, we do have a plan to execute that over three years and open up to what the master development plan shows is a full vision,” Senus said.
The three-year interim period, he said, would permit an office trailer that provides accommodations for staff, several sheds on the property, the catered food and beverage company, and things of that nature.
“We anticipate a three-year time frame for the interim conditions,” he said. “We want to emphasize this area is incredibly logistically challenging (from a land rights and construction aspect).”
Senus said the company wants to “create a vision that meets really harmoniously with the city’s vision of a waterfront park.”
But Kevin Kraft, deputy director of planning and urban development for the city, said the development has received “numerous” notices of violations, involving a liquor license and the placement of the temporary sheds. He said the city tries to work with property owners and developers to resolve these kinds of issues before moving forward with any kind of penalty.
“So they could remove those structures and the violations would go away,” he said.
It doesn’t appear, however, that the city is very interested in enforcing those violations in any meaningful way. Kraft said the conditions the development is seeking are essentially a declaration that the city “won’t get the building tomorrow, but we need the site to function today.”
Senus said the temporary buildings on the site, including fuel and commercial sheds, were put in place because construction of the formal buildings presented unforeseen challenges.
Several people spoke against the development on Oct. 26, particularly on the city’s failure to enforce the violations. Some complained about the visual impact created by the temporary structures, the impact of a potential restaurant at the marina, fencing that obstructs views, and suggested the developers are skirting the rules.
“You should be standing up for the laws,” Deborah Napier said. “We should not be bending over backward for developers.”
Maggy Wolf agreed.
“They promised us better views and then went ahead and did whatever they wanted to,” she said.
Prentice, meanwhile, said while the development team has “thick skin,” he feels Portland Foreside has received unfair treatment.
For example, most of the written public comment about the project has been overwhelmingly positive, he said – but a “vocal minority” of a few Munjoy Hill residents continue to speak against the project. He also admitted Portland Foreside hasn’t done the best job of promoting itself, that the project often has a “head-down” mentality, and the only time officials appear in public is when it seems like they’re “battling” for something.
He said he hopes the conditions they are seeking are approved rapidly by the Planning Board and City Council, and that those bodies don’t allow the negative comments to slow the process because that would only be a “disservice” to the city as a whole.
Prentice said the full buildout will take at least a decade and cost nearly $1 billion.
The former Portland Co. building, which was taken down brick by brick and reconstructed at a different location, will become home to an upscale farm-to-table restaurant called Twelve. Across the street, a massive new building will have Sun Life Financial offices taking up most of the top three floors.
Two older brick buildings will become the public market space with a public plaza, and event and test kitchen space to showcase local food, local producers, and local chefs and owners, to give them an opportunity for future success. Prentice said they don’t want permanent vendors; instead, they want those businesses to be able to grow into their own brick-and-mortar places in the future.
“We want to pull from the Old Port without poaching from the Old Port,” he said during a walk around the site last week. “We want to add to the Old Port.”
The ultimate vision will be something akin to Commercial Street, he said – with more water views. He also said the vision draws on inspiration from other well-known public areas, like Battery Park and Bryant Park in New York City.