Builder 'under the gun' to complete Merrill's Wharf project in Portland

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PORTLAND — Last Friday afternoon, Anthony Gatti, of Waterfront Maine, hopped onto a loading dock to gain access to the former Cumberland Cold Storage building on Merrill’s Wharf.

Gatti walked past piles of construction debris covered in dust. He pointed to a brand new elevator and then to another opening (partially covered by plywood) that will be the front entrance with double glass doors overlooking the water.

“There’s still a lot of work to do,” he said.

But Gatti wasn’t nervous about the state of the building, even though 70 percent of it must be finished by Sept. 17 – the date the company is contractually obligated to let the Pierce Atwood law firm to move in.

“We’re under the gun,” he admitted.

Crews have had to overcome several challenges, Gatti said, including driving piles to support the new development. It also took a considerable amount of time to remove old personal storage lockers.

“It’s just part of the beast,” he said of the challenges.

Brunswick-based Waterfront Maine spent most of June through October last year removing 550 personal storage lockers and began gutting the former Cumberland Cold Storage building last October.

Work began shortly after developers received a 20-year, $2.8 million tax break from the city to move the project forward.

Pierce Atwood, the largest law firm in the state with 175 attorneys, will occupy 70,000 square feet on the top four floors. Compass Health Analytics has signed a lease for 4,000 square feet of space on the second floor.

While the first floor is still unfinished, the office spaces on the upper floors are taking shape. Sheetrock and glass walls delineate some spaces, and carpet lines much of the floor.

Exposed wooden beams and brick, meanwhile, maintain the feel of the old building. New windows have been added on the harbor side, and concrete has been removed from nearly all of the 325 original windows, giving each office a long view of the Fore River.

“It was hard to get anyone to take it seriously until we got it to this stage,” Gatti said. “If you had seen it a few years ago, it was quite an eyesore.”

New zoning

The project is in line to be the first to take advantage of new zoning that allows more non-marine uses along the waterfront.

Previously, first-floor uses in the Waterfront Central Zone had to be marine-related. But the new rules allow 45 percent of first-floor space to be used for non-marine uses.

Gatti said the new zoning rules were key to making Merrill’s Wharf economically sustainable.

“It changed everything,” he said. “Without (the restrictions being lifted), I don’t see us filling (the building) for a long time.”

Gatti said he is optimistic the building will be fully leased within six months. Businesses that have expressed interest include a yoga studio, restaurants, photography studio and retailers, as well as marine-related uses.

Early on, it was questionable whether professional office uses would be compatible with the working waterfront. Developers initially clashed with a nearby bait company over its freezer units.

But the city stepped in, telling Dropping Springs Bait Co. to move its bait coolers because of safety concerns. The developers and bait company worked out an arrangement for a quieter storage unit further down the pier.

Waterfront Maine is also accommodating the seven lobstermen who tie up along the wharf. Gatti said a concrete staging area is being built for trap storage, and lobstermen will have access to lights, electricity and water.

Ground fisherman, meanwhile, continue to use a waterfront lot to stretch out and dry their nets.

Gatti said he is gratified that company was able to save the building, which also has a history as a molasses storage site.

“It’s been a fun project,” he said. “I never thought in my lifetime this building would have this opportunity.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.

Sidebar Elements

Construction on Merrill’s Wharf in Portland will reach a milestone on Sept. 17 when the Pierce Atwood law firm begins moving into the former Cumberland Cold Storage building owned by Waterfront Maine.

Part of the 70,000 square feet of space Pierce Atwood will occupy in the 100,000-square-foot former Cumberland Cold Storage building on Merrill’s Wharf in Portland.