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PORTLAND — A wharf owner hoping to get permission from the city to build a waterfront hotel and other tourist-centered amenities met with the City Council Monday to discuss the likelihood of getting permission for such a project.
Eric Cianchette owns Maine Wharf, located behind the Dry Dock Restaurant on Commercial Street. Like most other wharves along Portland’s waterfront, the Maine Wharf needs some repairs. Cianchette’s $50 million plan is to replace the wharf and build a new one, with new marine facilities for his current tenants and a boutique hotel to generate revenue. The development would include geothermal power and other green elements. None of the current marine tenants or fishermen and lobstermen who dock at the wharf would be displaced, according to Cianchette.
But hotels are not allowed in the Waterfront Central Zone – which includes Cianchette’s wharf and most of the piers along Commercial Street. And although the City Council rezoned its own property, the Maine State Pier, in 2006 to allow for a variety of non-marine uses including a hotel, the city has so far not given private wharf owners the same allowance.
Under current zoning, Cianchette cannot have non-marine uses on the first floor of his wharf. He is not proposing to change that. Instead, he wants to build the hotel and parking on three floors above.
To do that, Cianchette wants the city to change zoning to allow hotels in the Waterfront Central Zone through contract zoning.
The City Council met with Cianchette Monday in a workshop to discuss his plans. Cianchette has been open about his desire to get the council to give him assurances that they are OK with the plan before he goes through a lengthy and expensive Planning Board process.
On Monday he told councilors he met with Gov. John Baldacci last week to discuss getting the necessary state permits expedited for the project. He said the governor told him “he didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t get expedited permits.”
Councilors seemed open Cianchette’s proposal, although some were uncomfortable with certain elements, including the proposed height of the building and allowing parking on the wharf. Buildings in that zone are allowed to be up to 45 feet tall and Cianchette’s building would be more than 60 feet. Non-marine parking is also not allowed on piers without conditional use approval.
Councilors Cheryl Leeman and Dan Skolnik said they support moving the project along in the process. Skolnik said the project presents the opportunity to create jobs. Leeman said a drawn-out process is the worst thing the city can do, noting the Maine State Pier process and how that ended. Councilor John Anton also said he was comfortable with most of the proposal.
But others, including Councilors Kevin Donoghue and David Marshall, said they thought the entire zone should be studied before allowing changes based on one developer’s request.
Councilor Jill Duson also cautioned about making exceptions.
“It’s a great looking project, but I think it needs to go through the process,” Duson said.
The council did not give Cianchette any clear direction as to what his next step might be, but Councilor Nick Mavodones suggested Planning Department staff could provide the best guidance for the developer.