Portland board delays discussion of West Commercial Street zoning

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PORTLAND — How high and how far continue to be the key questions for West Commercial Street.

Although a Planning Board workshop scheduled for Tuesday on a city proposal to increase building heights from the International Marine Terminal to Cassidy Point was postponed to next month, a group of residents who primarily live uphill on Salem and Summer streets remain opposed to the effort.

“The consensus is, there is no need to change the zoning,” Salem Street resident Jo Coyne said Sunday.

Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman said in his Dec. 9 request to the Planning Board to postpone the meeting that “the applicants and proponents of the amendments request additional time to better document and illustrate design concepts that reflect the exciting potential of Portland’s International Marine Terminal and the working waterfront.”

Tabling the item may not change what Needelman and city officials have in mind: allowing building heights of 50 feet, up from the current 45 feet, and up to 70 feet as a conditional use.

“I anticipate we will come forward with a revised option for discussion. Whether or not it changes has yet to be decided,” Needelman said Monday.

The city has already stepped back from requesting an overall height increase to 70 feet throughout the zone as it looks to address burgeoning container-ship business at the expanded terminal. Portland Yacht Services owner Phineas Sprague Jr. has also said he wants to increase space at his new repair and maintenance shop.

Needelman also noted Dec. 7 the city is looking to add cold storage as a conditional use to the zoning in the Waterfront Port Development Zone, and prevent a “wall of development” by requiring 60 feet between structures taller than 50 feet and a maximum of 450 feet for building lengths.

The 70-foot height allowance would be absolute, Needelman, said, as opposed to allowing taller structures with peaked roofs, as is now the case at Portland Yacht Services. A building’s rooftop mechanical systems would be counted in the height cap of 70 feet.

In the last several years, the state Department of Transportation has expanded rail lines and will add a second crane to the terminal, now a hub for Icelandic shipper Eimskip.

In August, Atlanta-based Americold Logistics, which also operates a 165 Read St. warehouse, was selected by the DOT to build a waterfront warehouse, primarily for cold storage.

Americold has proposed two buildings, 45 feet and 60 feet in height. In October, city staff first presented the idea of increasing building heights to 70 feet as one of three options to accommodate economic growth on the waterfront. In the proposals, at least two-thirds of the space would be for cold storage of products.

Americold has not sought a zoning change or height waivers, but the increased building heights were discussed at the Oct. 25 Planning Board meeting, and again on Nov. 3 at a community meeting at Reiche Elementary School.

Summer Street resident Mark McCain said Friday he does not believe the 70-foot height allowance is critical to Americold’s business model.

“If Americold is chasing an unreasonable return on investment for its multi-billionaire principal, maybe it needs 70 feet. If Americold is unwilling to invest in technology for higher storage density, maybe it needs 70 feet,” he said in an email.

McCain was one of 12 people who signed a Dec. 6 letter to the Planning Board in opposition to increased building heights. The letter also says the state should reopen requests for proposals if the zoning height increase is allowed, as six other companies responding to the RFP made proposals based on buildings no taller than 45 feet.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

A planned cold storage warehouse on West Commercial Street in Portland would affect this view from Summer Street. Neighbors have opposed a city plan to increase allowed building heights in the zone between the street and harbor.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.