Portland Co. opponents seen, not heard, on proposed rezoning

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PORTLAND — The silence was colorful Monday night in a two-hour City Council workshop on possible zoning changes for the Portland Co. Complex at 58 Fore St.

Wearing red stickers that proclaimed “No Blank Checks,” opponents of the rezoning packed the City Hall council chambers, but neither they nor the property’s new owners spoke about the plan.

Opponents will get their chance to speak in a public hearing set for Monday, April 6, before the City Council votes.

Instead, it was left to city Planning & Urban Development Director Jeff Levine, Senior Planner Christine Grimando and Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman to walk councilors through the details and possible impacts of shifting 12 acres of land between Fore Street and the Fore River to mixed-use zones.

“This site was always envisioned to be redeveloped as a mixed-use site,” Levine said about the complex of industrial buildings first used to build locomotives and other equipment for the Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad in the mid-1840s.

Portland Co. Complex owners Jim Brady, Kevin Costello and Casey Prentice, collaborating as CPB2, want the property rezoned to allow a variety of commercial and residential uses.

The potential changes would also affect land owned by the state and used as Eastern Promenade Trail, and some underwater acreage.

But what Brady has called essential to ensuring future use that would benefit the city, while keeping historical elements intact, has elicited concern from neighbors and Munjoy Hill residents, who have formed an organization called Soul of Portland.

In a press release issued Monday, former state Sen. Anne Rand, spokeswoman for the group, cited the lack of a detailed site plan and said “CPB2 is effectively asking for a blank check from the council, with no guarantees.”

Waterville street resident Mike Connolly and Sherwood Hammill of Fore Street in February told Planning Board members they are worried that buildings as tall as 35 feet above Fore Street would ruin neighborhood views.

The Planning Board unanimously recommended the zoning as consistent with the Eastern Waterfront Master Plan adopted in December 2004.

How those building heights should be measured remains in contention; opponents believe floodplain height should be used instead of average grade height.

The difference could mean the tallest buildings allowed would not rise above grade level as Fore Street ascends to the Eastern Promenade.

Floodplain height is used in the adjoining zone along Fore Street near India Street, and Soul Of Portland members contend the measurement was originally intended to apply to the Portland Co.

Needelman, who participated in the prior planning discussions, disagreed.

“We made every effort in 2004 to take the Planning Board’s recommendation and move forward,” he said.

Soul of Portland members are asking councilors to ensure free public access to the complex, which is now used for special events and by businesses, including the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum, and to prevent any relocation of the Eastern Prom Trail.

“This is private property, it would continue to be private property,” Levine noted, adding CPB2 principals could not unilaterally have the trail shifted as part of their development plans.

Development plans could proceed in the scope of a master plan over 10 years that would require individual site Planning Board approvals. The site may also be named a city historic preservation district, which would provide additional oversight by the Historic Preservation Board.

A board workshop on that designation will be held Wednesday at 5 p.m.

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

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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.