A rendering of the ground-floor view of the 299-foot-tall building proposed by Tim Soley and East Brown Cow Management for the block bound by Union, Middle, Exchange and Fore streets in Portland's Old Port. (Courtesy FM Costantino, Architectural Illustrator)
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The tallest building in the state could be built in Portland’s Old Port if city councilors approve a proposal to allow developers to build beyond height limits if they create public spaces at ground level.

Tim Soley of East Brown Cow Management, which owns 14 properties in the city, submitted the zoning amendment request Dec. 11, 2019, that would award height bonuses resulting in buildings of up to 299 feet in exchange for open space that would be accessible to the public and preserved through public access easements held by the city. 

The property Tim Soley hopes to develop under a requested zoning rule change is currently a parking lot behind Canal Plaza. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

The tallest building in the state is listed in a 2018 Business Insider article as Agora Grand Event Center in Lewiston, formerly St. Patrick’s Church, whose spire reaches 220 feet. Not including buildings with spires, the tallest building in the state is Franklin Towers on Cumberland Avenue, at 175 feet. 

Soley’s request applies to portions of the B3 zone that currently allow building heights up to 125 feet. The area that would be affected encompasses the blocks on the southeast side of Spring Street between High and Union streets, except for a strip along Fore Street, as well as a portion of the block bound by Union, Middle, Exchange and Fore streets, which Soley owns. 

The property Soley would like to develop under the proposed rule is the parking lot at the heart of that block, behind Key Bank, Novare Res and the Fore Street parking garage. 

Under current zoning regulations in that area, developers may build out to 100 percent of the lot, but Soley said this would not allow for pedestrian connectivity. 

“The site is better served by a taller, slender building and a new plaza,” he said in a prepared statement, “which we envision as an inviting oasis within the Old Port featuring new seating, planting, artwork and lighting.” 

Soley has expressed a desire to build a 20-plus-story building in the area of Canal Plaza in the past, and the zoning amendment request includes a graphic of a 23-story, 287-foot-tall building to illustrate how the amount of open space would be affected.

His proposed zoning change would reduce the maximum floor area ratio, or total floor area divided by lot size, from 7.5 to 5.75 while increasing the maximum allowable height to 299 feet. For a 20,000 square foot lot, such a building would have three times the open space as one built to the current regulations. 

A group called Keep Portland Livable is not convinced the Old Port is a good place for such a tall building, regardless of how much public space is created. Portland residents Tim Paradis and Paul Munro, in a statement submitted to the Phoenix, said such a building would “disfigure the human scale and architectural cohesion that has made this historic district the crown jewel in Portland’s renaissance.”

It would shadow the surrounding streets and increase wind, they said, especially around the building’s base, making the proposed public area “windswept, cold and uninviting.”

In addition, Munro and Paradis said, “It would damage Portland’s brand, the very reason that visitors and new residents – from places like Boston and Brooklyn – are flocking to our city to escape what their home cities have become.”

They argue that taller buildings make sense on the ridge of downtown along Congress Street (where 210-foot buildings are allowed, according to the city’s height overlay maps) “helping to form a Portland skyline and funneling winds up and over the streets below – and around the gateways to downtown.”

The property Soley would like to develop is tucked into a nook in the boundary of the Old Port Historic District, behind buildings on Exchange Street with 65-foot height limits. A

An aerial view of the the Canal Plaza block shows current pedestrian pathways through the block, and the footprint of a building that would be proposed if zoning revisions are approved. (Courtesy Woodard & Curran)

portion of the property is in the historic district, according to city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin.

When asked about the impacts of a 299-foot building in the Old Port, Professor Yuseung Kim, who teaches in the graduate program of policy, planning and management at the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service, said he supports increasing density in the city, even if it’s next to a historic district. 

“Portland needs more density, and needs to reduce empty spaces (a.k.a. parking lots) for all the well-known reasons: walkability, affordability, safety, preservation, connectedness,” Kim said. “To minimize negative impacts on the historic district, and to promote visually pleasing cityscape, the new building shape, material, color, entrance should be carefully decided.”

Grondin said properties within 100 feet of historic districts receive an advisory review from Historic Preservation program staff, so there will be an opportunity for preservation comments at the site plan review stage for any development proposed for that property. She said she said she is sure attention would be given to the contrasting heights.

Forgotten history

Historically, the inner part of the block was much more active, with the former Plum Street bisecting it north to south. 

In her blog “Strange Maine” Michelle Souliere wrote that crossing the parking lot site, “you will be stepping into the atmosphere that once alighted over the well-trodden sidewalks of Plum Street … between the antiquated footprints of two of Portland’s grandest Victorian hotels.”  

Across from each other at the two corners of Plum and Middle streets stood the elegant Falmouth and St. Julian (later St. Regis) hotels, built in 1868. But by the 1960s the once-bustling area had deteriorated because of the shifting economic realities in downtown Portland. 

Canal Bank, in the Middle Street building now housing Urban Outfitters, bought the St. Regis hotel next door, and by 1972 the hotel and the length of Plum Street were demolished, “leaving nought but the ghosts of these swinging and intricate places,” Souliere wrote. 

According to an 1876 “Bird’s Eye View” map of the Portland peninsula by Joseph Warner, south of the St. Julian hotel on Plum Street, in what appears to be the site Soley hopes to develop, was a building that Warner labeled as Portland Suspender Company Works.

Soley has been working to revitalize the area and restore pedestrian uses of Canal Plaza since purchasing the block in 2009. He recently added a small, free-standing, glass-enclosed structure that houses the Copper Branch restaurant, and has expressed a desire to increase retail uses on the ground floors of adjoining properties. 

Pedestrians can cut through the block either by walking from Fore Street up Patton Court, a narrow dead end next to the parking garage, or from Exchange Street through a gap in the buildings next to Abacus Gallery, then across the Key Bank parking lot and up a broad staircase to Canal Plaza and out to Spring Street.

Illustrations in a project vision statement by Safdie Architects accompanying the zoning change application shows the site of the parking lot containing a building of unspecified height surrounded by sidewalks, benches and trees, and described as an “intimately-scaled public plaza.”

In addition, the building footprint is lifted, with the plaza extending underneath the upper floors, which are supported by columns to a glass-enclosed cafe. 

Councilors weigh in

City Councilor Kimberly Cook said the concept of awarding height bonuses in exchange for public access is a policy that should be considered in several zones. 

However, she said that because the city is in the process of completely rewriting its Zoning Code, she does not believe the B-3 zone should “jump ahead of all other zones and receive a partial rewrite at the request of one developer.” She said doing so would undermine the critical work of aligning the city’s zoning with its sustainability and housing priorities. 

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau said he would wait until the proposal comes to the City Council before commenting on it specifically, but that he is open to the discussion of increasing heights in just the downtown area, especially for workforce and affordable housing. 

Soley’s zoning amendment request does not introduce any new housing requirements. 

Grondin, the city spokeswoman, said that while increasing heights is one potential growth incentive, Portland would not necessarily seek to apply increased heights uniformly.

“With any proposal for a change from a property owner, we’d look at the context and other city policy goals that are supported, or not supported, by the change,” she said. 

The public will have the opportunity to comment on the zoning amendment when it goes before the Planning Board. That discussion has not yet been scheduled. 

When increasing height limits for individual projects was brought up in the past, it was met with strong opposition from residents. In one recent example, Keeping Portland Livable filed a lawsuit against developers of a project that would have brought 165-foot apartment towers to Bayside; in response, Florida-based developer Federated Cos. reduced the proposed building to four stories. 

That project ultimately stalled amid a dueling breach-of-contract lawsuit between the city and developer.

New York experience

Soley’s proposal was submitted about a week before the City Council adopted another incentive zoning amendment to allow developers to build drive-throughs in areas where they were prohibited in exchange for creating at least three housing units on upper floors of buildings. Councilors said they were trying out a unique tool to increase housing and were curious to see if it works. 

The type of incentive zoning Soley is proposing, by contrast, is not unique. It was pioneered in New York City in 1961 in an attempt to create more public spaces and ease sidewalk congestion. 

The benefits and drawbacks of how the tool was implemented in New York has been analyzed by Jerold S. Kayden, a professor of urban planning at the Harvard School of Design. 

The approximately 500 public spaces created through the incentive (referred to as privately owned public spaces, or POPS) added 16 million square feet more floor area above and beyond normal zoning limits.

But 41 percent of those public spaces, Kayden found, were so poorly designed or maintained that they actually discouraged public use. And nearly half had become privatized by adjoining businesses that would use the space for such things as outdoor retail and restaurant seating that appear to be only for paying customers — a phenomenon he called “cafe creep.”

“Each individual violation may not be the biggest deal, but the cumulative effect seems to give private owners the sense that they can privatize public space without a penalty,” Kayden told The New York Times. “That’s especially wrong when you think about the financial aspects.”

The developers of the General Motors building, for example, received a bonus of more than 242,000 square feet in five additional floors for creating a public plaza, and rental prices there are among the highest in the country, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

The private use of that plaza was the subject of a 2002 lawsuit in which the owner of a neighboring hotel sued CBS, a tenant of the General Motors Building, for using the plaza space as an extension of its audience when filming “The Early Show.” The New York Times reported CBS was paying rent for use of the plaza to its landlord at the time, Donald J. Trump, which Kayden said is illegal.  

New York has since revised its POPS standards with ideal design elements that will make the spaces more inviting, and beginning in 2021, these spaces must all be clearly labeled with a new logo inviting the public to “have a seat.” 

Kim, at the Muskie School, said that such incentive zoning is widely used, with a variety of options for the public space including first floors of pilotis or piers, pocket parks, public art, street lighting, and rooftop gardens. 

“The choice is very important, and it needs to be decided based on several factors: demands, costs, urban design perspective, maintenance, connection to the historic district, and so on,” Kim said. “Finally, the city should consider how to collect the developer’s profits from the increased height, in addition to requiring … a public space.”

Keep Portland Livable contends Soley stands to profit at a cost to taxpayers.

“With easy bank financing based on historically low interest rates, East Brown Cow Management will likely do nicely,” Munro and Paradis said. “But Portland’s businesses and taxpayers will pay the price of disruption and the cost of infrastructure in a delicate neighborhood of boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops likely to be overwhelmed by a behemoth of a building.”

But East Brown Cow argues that the increased value would ultimately benefit Portland. It states in another document submitted with the application that “through increased building heights, the city will realize increased valuation per square foot of land area over shorter buildings of similar quality,” helping achieve the city’s goal of becoming sustainable and bringing down the long-term cost of public infrastructure operations, maintenance, and repairs when compared to sprawled communities.

No particular use was indicated for the building described in the project vision statement. East Brown Cow spokeswoman Jessica James said the developer is not revealing anything more than was submitted about its vision for the project at this time.

But a lavish top floor is described as “featuring an airy lounge and restaurant with vaulted wood ceilings, generous floor-to-ceiling windows with 360 degree views … of Casco Bay, the White Mountains and beyond.”

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