Galt Block on Commercial Street
The Portland Planning Board is weighing a request from Maine Public, which wants a height variance for a new building in the parking lot at 35 Commercial St. Maine Public bought the lot and the adjacent Galt Block building in the fall. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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Plans for a new permanent home in Portland’s Old Port for one of Maine’s best-known media companies include public-facing space and a request for a height variance.

Maine Public officials went into a Planning Board workshop last week to explain their vision for the Galt Block property acquired this fall at 35 Commercial St., which now includes a five-story building and an adjacent surface parking lot.

The nonprofit company, which also has facilities in Lewiston and Bangor, is seeking a zoning amendment to allow a height bonus for a building it wants to construct in the parking lot, which would include radio and television broadcasting components.

The Galt Building, at the corner of Commercial and Franklin streets across from the Casco Bay Lines terminal, would be sold.

Maine Public President and CEO Rick Schneider told the Planning Board the company has outgrown its leased space on Marginal Way, which was never intended to be used as a broadcast center.

The Commercial Street property meets Maine Public’s needs, Schneider said, because it will provide high visibility for the organization, is easily accessible, and will help attract new creative workers to Portland.  

He said the new building would also expand Maine Public’s capacity to broadcast local news, public affairs, and entertainment programs, and national programming from PBS.

Schneider said he envisions the new building as a place that the public will be able to use because it will have meeting space, retail space, and a performance venue. The building will not be open to the public at all times like a library, he said, but there will be space on two floors where community participation will be possible.

Because last week’s session was a workshop, no decision was made about the requested height bonus. The final decision on the zoning text amendment will also have to be made by the City Council. 

On Monday, Cory Morrissey, chief business development officer for Maine Public, said the proposed building will replace space the organization has leased at 323 Marginal Way for more than a decade.

“It was small 10 years ago,” Morrissey said. “Since that time, we’ve started ‘Maine Calling,’ we have a new classical network, we’ve added reporters. There was just no room.”

Morrissey said if all goes as planned, Maine Public hopes to break ground on Commercial Street in the second half of 2022. Construction is expected to take three to four years.

He said the public component of the building will allow live musical performances, screenings of Maine Public and PBS content, live broadcasts with audiences, and other content that isn’t possible at the Marginal Way space.

“Once we get going I envision a pretty robust community calendar,” Morrissey said.

Maine Public purchased the property for $10.8 million. Morrissey said the acquisition was funded by a capital campaign and he expects construction to be funded that way too.

The Galt Block was previously owned by Essex North Portland, which intended to create restaurant space on the first floor with offices above, according to 2020 Historic Preservation Board documents. 

The Galt Building was the former headquarters of Auto Europe, an international car rental agency. According to the Maine Memory Network, it was historically a storage and distribution facility on the waterfront for connections to shipping vessels. 

A City Hall spokesperson said Maine Public has not filed for a tax exemption for either the Galt Building or the parking lot, which are still listed as taxable. The building is valued at just over $9 million and the lot is valued at $558,000.

During the Planning Board discussion, a handful of city residents expressed concerns about how the proposal would fit into the Commercial Street landscape, especially if it is allowed to be built taller than surrounding buildings.

But the proposal was welcomed by representatives of Greater Portland Landmarks, who spoke in support of Maine Public’s request.

Scott Simons, the architect for the project, said the property is a “once-in-generation opportunity” that aligns with the organization’s mission and needs. He said the broadcast spaces will be visible, so people passing by on the street will be able to see inside

“It’s a public-engagement building,” Simons said.

He said the height bonus is needed because existing restrictions mean the space needed for broadcasting would be “a tight fit.”

The proposal still requires a formal Planning Board hearing.