'Beirut East': State of Portland's Eastern Waterfront disturbs local developer

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PORTLAND — Just a few years ago, the city’s Eastern Waterfront was a hotbed for large-scale development proposals. Now, the properties targeted for condominiums, hotels and shopping sit vacant and some observers think the atmosphere is unfriendly.

“I call it Beirut East,” said Joseph Malone, who owns the properties across Middle Street from the shuttered Jordan’s Meats factory. “Every property is surrounded by chain link and some have plastic netting. It’s just an unfriendly atmosphere.”

Malone spoke with city officials about the vacant properties in the area, including the hot dog factory and the former Village Cafe property on Newbury Street. The Riverwalk property across Fore Street from the Ocean Gateway garage and the newly opened Marriott Residence Inn is also surrounded by chain link. But the city can’t force property owners to mow or regulate fencing. There has to be a safety or health issue.

“We do endeavor to contact property owners,” said Penny Littell, the city’s director of Planning and Urban Development. “A  majority of the time we get compliance.”

Malone decided he’d contact the owners of the Jordan’s property, the Procaccianti Group of Cranston, R.I. Procaccianti abandoned plans to turn the site into a Westin Hotel and condominiums more than two years ago; the firm now leases parking on the property.

Malone said he was tired of looking at the factory entrance, including waist-high grass and a blue tarp covering an old fountain. There’s graffiti on the building, too.

“People are sleeping in the grass in front of Jordan’s,” Malone said.

When he finally tracked down someone at the development company, he said they were receptive and hired a property management company. The firm has experienced high turnover, Malone said he was told, and no one seemed to be watching the property. On Tuesday morning, men were cutting the grass.

As for the former Village Cafe site, the developer is still marketing the property as the future home of Bay House, an 82-unit condominium development. The development has been in the works since 2005 and Demetri Dasco, a partner in Atlas Investment Group of Boston, said earlier this year he expected to break ground this past spring. So far, all that’s happened is demolition of the old restaurant, and that took place more than a year ago. Dasco could not be reached for comment this week.

“It looks bombed out,” Malone said, referring to the rubble that is surrounded by a chain-link fence. 

Malone, who runs Malone Commercial Brokers, said that until development happens there, the city should allow Dasco to pave the lot and rent it out for parking. But the developer would have to go through a full site plan review to do so.

“Not for revenue, but just to get some life over there,” Malone said. “Consider issuing short-term permits for parking lots.”

Surface lots are not allowed in the Eastern Waterfront zone, said Littell, adding that she didn’t think a surface parking lot is the best idea for the property, either.

“As far as I know, they’re still marketing that property,” she said, referencing newspaper advertisements and a model unit set up in a storefront in the Old Port.

Malone said that until the economy turns around, the city should allow property owners some leeway, for the benefit of the surrounding neighborhood. He also plans on starting an India Street Corridor neighborhood association. 

“It was brimming with hope down here,” he said. “No one even wants to walk here now.”

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net

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decay 005.jpgThe former Jordan’s Meats factory remains vacant in the city’s east end. The grass in front of the building was trimmed on Tuesday. (Bucklin photo)