The waterfront is Portland’s trademark. The scenic views, iconic landmarks, shops, and restaurants that line the city’s harbor attract local residents and tourists while providing an economic base for marine businesses.
The area is also the favored choice among developers for new projects that are transforming Commercial Street from one end to the other.
Richard Barringer, a professor emeritus at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine who served as Maine’s director of public lands and conservation commissioner in the 1970s, hopes to see a different kind of transformation.
Barringer is part of a team that has proposed returning 11 acres of land near the entrance to Portland Harbor to public space. In the wrong hands, he said, it could easily end up a commercial development, adding to the many hotels that have been developed along the street in the past few years.
“I think there’s a good deal of feeling that shouldn’t happen,” Barringer said last week. “It has to be put into some kind of protection and use that will attach people’s heart to it.”
Barringer’s vision for this stretch of land along the harbor is just a part of the city’s ever-evolving, ever-changing waterfront.
Bill Needelman, the city’s waterfront coordinator, said Portland’s waterfront is in a constant state of evolution.
“The policies the City Council has implemented are consistently being recalibrated to reflect that evolution,” Needelman said.
In some respects, he said, management of the city’s waterfront has remained consistent since the 1990s; the goal has been to seek a balance between marine and non-marine activity. But there have been some major changes.
He said the introduction of more predictable services for container shipping, in particular, has been “monumental.”
“We now move more freight through the port of Portland than ever before,” Needelman said, which in turn has strengthened the city’s relationships with other North Atlantic partners. “That holds great promise for future developments.”
One of the notable changes coming on the waterfront area is the planned sale of Union Wharf, which has been owned by the Poole family for more than 160 years. It is listed by NAI The Dunham Group, which describes the wharf as providing “a combination of retail, office, warehouse, production, berthing, and parking spaces.”
Chris Craig, the real estate agent representing the Poole family, said the family “will not sell to someone whose intentions are to change the workings of Union Wharf.” He said the family’s mission has always been to provide a property that supports the working waterfront and gives the waterfront community a long-term presence in Portland.
“The few other non-marine-related tenants there support that mission and realize that their presence helps the cause,” Craig said.
He said the Pooles have been “directly involved” with city zoning efforts to make sure the wharf never becomes the site of a hotel or residential development.
“The reason they are selling is for estate purposes,” Craig said. “It is a very large family and a minority of the family are involved with the day-to-day operations. The next generation of the family has gone in different directions.”
Tourism is a major component of the activity and traffic on Commercial Street, a reason for and result of unrelenting hotel development.
Nell Donaldson, the city’s director of special projects for planning and urban development, said development and traffic are both two important factors to have in mind when considering Commercial Street.
“This is an area we spend a lot of time thinking about,” she said. “We see the marine economy, which is important, and in a number of ways is coming up against the heart of the tourist economy and office development.”
Donaldson said there are several “competing interests” when it comes to the growth of Commercial Street, namely the marine uses, the traffic and pedestrian access, and future development.
“One thing that makes this stretch of the city so interesting is the mix of things happening,” she said. “That’s why people want to be there. One of the biggest assets is the complexity of that neighborhood.”
Donaldson said the city is nearing completion of a study of how Commercial Street is used by different user groups, with recommendations for the future based on those groups to promote safety for all users.
The recommendations include improving and coordinating transit signals along Commercial Street, and consolidating some crosswalks to have better sightlines while making sure the number of crosswalks doesn’t create a stop-and-go traffic situation. She also said there are recommendations to improve bike and pedestrian aspects on Commercial Street, while also ensuring commercial activity, such as truck deliveries to the wharves, can continue easily.
In terms of development, Donaldson said the city has seen quite a bit of infill development on both the east and west ends of Commercial Street, and proposals haven’t stopped coming in just because of the pandemic.
She said Commercial Street has various zoning provisions to promote those competing interests, with the waterside regulation much tighter than on the land side, where the development happens. On the waterside, she said, there are much more explicit and prescriptive regulations for marine uses and non-marine uses.
“But what we see happening on the land side is a lot of infill development that will add users to the street,” she said. “That mix of things is part of what makes the street and that part of the city so successful. We want people living in downtown Portland, we want people working in downtown Portland. Developments that contribute are a really good thing for the whole.”
Donaldson said Portland residents and visitors can continue to expect to see Commercial Street evolve, with a focus on transportation options like bike and pedestrian improvements, revamped sidewalk infrastructure, and additional bus service.
But Donaldson also said Commercial Street is a very vulnerable part of the city. She and Needelman said climate change and rising sea levels threaten parts of Commercial Street in the long term, which is why the city has tried to be proactive with its One Climate Future partnership with South Portland.
“Commercial Street is a huge part of the city’s identity and is really important to the city,” Donaldson said. “So how do we make change happen in a sustainable way is an important challenge.”
Needelman also said climate change will continue to impact the waterfront in years to come, which is why the city is taking the issue so seriously.
“We have to be careful of the kinds of development we pursue in these low-lying areas in the future,” he said.
On the western end of the Commercial Street waterfront, two major developments are in the pipeline: a planned cold storage facility, and the under-construction Veterans’ Affairs clinic.
The $30 million, 107,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse to be built on state-owned land next to the International Marine Terminal had to overcome significant opposition from nearby West End neighbors who claimed it was too tall, too large, and would add too much truck traffic to the already congested street.
The building proposed by Treadwell Franklin Infrastructure, Eimskip, and Amber Infrastructure, was ultimately approved by the Planning Board and will be built on state-owned land next to Portland Yacht Services.
Needelman said the Portland Co., which vacated the eastern side of the waterfront and has now developed into Portland Yacht Services on West Commercial Street, had already transformed a vacant space into “a highly dynamic center for marine commerce.”
“How this changes the port of Portland remains to be seen,” he said. “But we are seeing more yachts, and larger yachts, which make Casco Bay a worldwide cruising facility.”
The VA clinic, meanwhile, is rapidly taking shape after breaking ground on West Commercial Street last summer. The 62,000-square-foot facility is on the site of an abandoned railroad spur on the inland side of the street. The two-story clinic will be about five times the size of the VA’s existing Fore Street space.
Barringer, who proposed creating the permanent open space near the Ocean Gateway cruise ship terminal, said he started thinking about this piece of land – previously used as parking for the now-defunct ferry service to Nova Scotia – after the controversy around the sale of the former Portland Co. property on the eastern waterfront and the concerns about preserving the city’s views and public access to the waterfront.
“That is probably the single most valuable piece of property in the city,” he said.
Barringer approached City Manager Jon Jennings with a proposal called the Portland Harbor Common Plan. He said it will have to go before the City Council, and will likely require a public-private partnership.
“It was locked up year-round as a big parking lot, I thought that land was so valuable to the future of the city, it was a shame,” Barringer said. “And some amount of imagination ought to be implemented.”
He and a team of like-minded people began meeting monthly with Jennings, and from that, a vision was produced for a piece of property similar to the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston – what he called a kind of “front porch” to the city that will offer a variety of public uses, and be guaranteed to remain a public commodity.
“We’re looking at this as a long-term project that will initially guarantee to the people of the city it will forever be public space of high quality, protected in perpetuity from development, to make it a place in which people can enjoy the views of the harbor and activities that are compatible with that,” Barringer said.
There’s no real concept plan yet, Barringer said, for what they are calling “the Platform.” That’s because he wants there to be a period of time where they can observe how people use the property. He said personally, he could see some kind of performance venue, or perhaps a pavilion. But he said there won’t be any real plans until they see what the public wants and how the space is used.
“We want to make sure it’s protected and supported and there’s a management structure put in place to see to it that people are thinking about it, that it’s maintained, and it’s an attractive and safe place to enjoy,” Barringer said.