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'A new golden age'?: Leaders see construction boom in Portland

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'A new golden age'?: Leaders see construction boom in Portland

PORTLAND — In 2023, a visitor to the city walks out the front door of his Commercial Street hotel. He may turn left to grab dinner at any number of eateries along the waterfront, or ascend to a rooftop bar for a drink looking over Casco Bay.

To get back to his hotel, this visitor may have two new options: Walk to the other end of Commercial Street and into the new downtown train station, or take an aerial tram to the Portland International Jetport and hop a flight.

Welcome to future Portland.

Based on the bold predictions of local leaders interviewed in recent weeks, this may be the picture for Maine’s largest city.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to predict in 10 years a billion dollars of new construction (in the downtown),” said Christopher O’Neil, a Portland Community Chamber consultant. “I think it can be done. I don’t see that building happening overnight, but being like a wildfire that catches on, with hopefully lots of funky architecture and lighting that reflects Portland’s eclectic nature. I think we could have 90,000 people living in Portland 10 years from now.”

That influx could be felt from Fort Kent to Kennebunk.

Greater Portland today generates more than half of the state ’s economic output and one-third of its jobs.

Now, with a dozen high-profile development projects proposed or under construction and city officials leading a planning exercise to gather public comment on any redevelopment of the 15-block India Street neighborhood at the base of Munjoy Hill, Portland faces a critical period in its evolution.

The city has a population of about 66,000. The biggest 10-year jump in population Portland has ever seen, according to the U.S. Census, came between 1890 and 1900, when the city grew from just more than 36,000 people to slightly more than 50,000. In 1950, Maine’s largest city hit its highest census mark with nearly 78,000 residents.

If O’Neil is right, Portland in 2023 would set new population records for the state. The nonprofit economic development group Creative Portland Corp. previously set a more modest population growth goal of 10,000 more people in a decade. Either prediction would represent a significant increase.

“I think we should be glad people want to come and live in Portland, and we need to find a place in the community for everybody who wants to be here,” Mayor Michael Brennan said.

City Councilor David Marshall said Portland will be more urban in the future. “I think it’s going to be a new golden age for the city,” he said.

Tim Soley, president of Portland-based commercial real estate firm East Brown Cow Management, said with such population growth comes new vitality.

“You’ll get the urban density, you’ll get the quality of life of places being open longer hours and the diversity of offerings,” he said. “You’ll start seeing some more retail chains, like we’re getting now with Urban Outfitters and Starbucks. Some people may complain about that, but it means you’re getting a diversity of people. If you have all just small boutique stores, they can be more expensive and alienate some of the people you really do want to have in the downtown.”

Projects already proposed

Some of the sights on a hypothetical tour of Portland in the year 2023 are foreseeable based on what’s already been proposed; in some cases, construction is already underway.

Portlanders are eminently aware of the $150 million, four-tower Midtown retail and housing complex plotted for the Bayside neighborhood, as well as the $100 million project lined up for Thompson’s Point, featuring a sports arena, office space and one of five new hotels planned for construction or expansion.

If the Midtown project is permitted and built, it will double the number buildings in Portland with more than 14 stories from four to eight.

“Driving along (Interstate) 295, Portland may look very different than it does today,” said Charles Colgan, one of the state’s best-known economists and a professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. “There are going to be a couple of new towers. Thompson’s Point may be another real development hot-spot. The people looking at that place have imagined an extremely ambitious project for that area.”

On Thompson’s Point – which as the city’s welcome mat to the south currently is home to undeveloped grounds and old industrial warehouses – developers hope to build a venue for professional basketball team the Maine Red Claws, as well as at least two office buildings, a hotel and a sports medicine facility. They have dialed back the pace of their construction in recent weeks, proposing to build fewer parts of the project in the first phase, but still transform the point over the long haul.

Other stops on a future tour of the city include a new transportation hub, which could transform Portland’s landscape. One source envisioned the return of a railroad station near the site of the 110-year-old Grand Trunk Office Building at the base of India Street, where train-riding visitors from Boston could step directly out onto tourist-friendly Commercial Street.

The Amtrak Downeaster currently unloads passengers on the city’s outskirts, a taxi ride away from the shops and restaurants tourists seek.

“There’s a vision of that (downtown train station) happening,” said landscape architect and urban planner Mitchell Rasor, who worked with city officials and area residents on an exercise envisioning the future of the India Street neighborhood. “Some people say that’s a little ‘pie in the sky,’ but if that were to happen, that would be huge. ... That would be quite dynamic for the city. That would be truly amazing, urban transportation infrastructure.”

The hotel boom

There shouldn’t be any shortage of places for visitors to rest their heads once they arrive. In addition to the 125-room hotel planned as part of the Thompson’s Point complex across town, construction has begun on a seven-story Hyatt Place at the corner of Fore and Union streets, as well as a six-story Courtyard by Marriott just a few blocks away at 321 Commercial St.

Those will be joined by the expanded Eastland Park Hotel – to be reopened as the Westin Portland Harborview – and a boutique hotel in the former Portland Press Herald headquarters at 389 Congress St.

“You’ve got these hotels going up, which shows that Portland remains strong not only for tourists, but year-round for travelers as well,” Colgan said.

Soley, of East Brown Cow Management, said the hotels under construction will increase the number of downtown hotel rooms from about 800 to nearly 1,200. But he pointed out that the current figure of 800 is still only about half the amount of rooms found near the Maine Mall campus in South Portland, and he doesn’t expect the Portland downtown hotel boom to end at 1,200.

The Hyatt Place being built represents East Brown Cow’s first foray into the hospitality field after decades of managing office and retail spaces throughout greater Portland.

“I honestly think there’s so much demand and unmet demand in terms of supply (that) I think in another couple of years you’ll see another couple of hotels being built,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see the number of hotel rooms in the downtown double over the next 10 years.”

Soley said that none of the hotel projects being proposed could be described as luxury compared with the lavish options in larger cities worldwide, but Portland is making the transition from “a big town to a small city,” he said.

“Portland is still not a market where you’re going to see a Four Seasons,” Soley said. “I hope that will be the case in my lifetime, but even now there is a wider range (of visitors) in terms of economics and demographics – young, old, international.”

When Soley started in the real estate business in Portland 24 years ago, Commercial Street’s waterfront was viewed as “the back end” of the downtown, he said, with “seasonal mud pits” on the paved side streets where tourists now teem.

“Portland was not a destination. It might have been a place where somebody would stop for a couple hours on their way to or from another Maine hot-spot like Kennebunk or Camden, Rockport. Now it’s a destination in and of itself,” Soley said. “As we’ve created new supply here, we’re unleashing new demand. I think there have been people who have wanted to visit here, but haven’t had anywhere to stay.”

Abodes explode

Those who live in the city full time will be seeing more housing options as well.

In addition to the Midtown project, which would add as many as 675 market-rate apartments over three development phases if permitted, the Bay House complex and its 94 luxury condominiums already are being framed up in the India Street neighborhood.

Still 39 more top-shelf apartments are due to be on the market by the summer of 2014 as part of West End Place, a project lined up for the corner of Pine and Brackett streets.

Another 18-unit condominium building has city approval to be erected alongside a sister building – the 2011 structure that houses a Hampton Inn and Sebago Brewing Co. – on the former Jordan’s Meats factory site on outer Fore Street.

“Portland right now is doing well in the development of multifamily housing, but much of that is condominium development for relatively upscale people,” said Colgan. “Companies like Avesta have been very active in putting up affordable housing, and that’s important in keeping middle-income families in the city.”

Avesta Housing, the region’s top nonprofit housing developer, held a grand opening for its 54-unit Pearl Place II this month and soon will finish construction of its Adams School project, which will add 16 two- and three-bedroom townhouse-style units on Munjoy Hill. All of those are considered affordable housing.

Avesta may breathe new life into the high-visibility lot on the corner of Cumberland and Forest avenues, which is undeveloped and has been in limbo since a 12-story condominium proposal for the space fizzled more than five years ago. While new plans for the location have yet to be officially announced, Avesta has received approval from the Maine State Housing Authority for $700,000 in tax credits for a housing project there.

A billion-dollar boom

Those housing and hotel projects represent construction already underway or, with the proper permits, soon to come. Additionally, in places where the construction of I-295 and Franklin Arterial dissected neighborhoods several decades ago, city officials are studying ways to restore those neighborhood environments through possibly reducing lanes and establishing pedestrian-friendly sidewalks.

But according to O’Neil, the biggest development explosion in Portland’s history remains just over the horizon.

Portland Yacht Services owner Phineas Sprague is planning to move his company from its home at the historic seven-building Portland Co. complex at the base of Munjoy Hill to an undeveloped property on West Commercial Street near the Casco Bay Bridge – approximately across the street from where developer J.B. Brown & Sons hopes to construct three new office buildings.

Once Sprague makes that move, O’Neil said, the Portland Co. complex will be ripe for sensitive redevelopment, knocking over a domino that the Chamber consultant believes will drive up demand and lead to the build-out of underused properties along the waterfront Thames Street nearby.

That’s where O’Neil sees big development dollars rolling in – as much as a billion dollars worth.

“That will unleash a wave of positive development like we haven’t seen since after the Great Fire of 1866,” O’Neil said. “That’s waterfront property that’s ready to be built upon. Now you’re talking Long Wharf, you’re talking Savannah, you’re talking about a really attractive waterfront property. That’s not fantasy. That’s close to reality. The sky’s the limit for the rest of that track, all the way to Cassidy Point.”

The Chamber consultant wasn’t kidding about the sky, either. He recalled wealthy New York City developer John Cacoulidis’ proposal just more than a decade ago to build a massive convention hall and hospital in South Portland, then connect the facility with Portland across the harbor using an aerial tram, like a cable car line. That proposal ultimately faded.

Or did it?

“Cacoulidis hasn’t gone anywhere. He or some other developer could bring back the idea of an overhead tramway, and connect Portland with South Portland and even the jetport.” O’Neil said. “People laughed at him because he had big ideas, but Portlanders shouldn’t laugh at big ideas, they should embrace them.”