Portland neighborhood uneasy as eastern waterfront evolves

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PORTLAND — Standing in the driveway of his Newbury Street home on Sept. 27, Giuseppe Ruotolo was not happy.

“I am losing my ocean view,” he said, arms folded as he scowled into the sunshine.

Across the street, behind the Shipyard Brewery, an excavator was clearing the site of what had been a Mountfort Street home, making way for a mixed-use development that includes a 105-room hotel and corporate headquarters for Vets First Choice.

The project was approved by the Planning Board on Sept. 25. When completed, it will cover nearly 94,000 square feet, wrapping around Newbury Street and down to the intersection of Mountfort and Fore streets.

Across Fore Street from the future Vets First Choice offices, a mixed-use project is planned at the present site of Hamilton Marine. Councilors approved the required zoning on Sept. 17.

On Sept. 28, city Planning Director Tuck O’Brien said he expects developer Jonathan Cohen to file a site plan within weeks.

If approved, the development will be tucked in next to the new headquarters for WEX, slated to open next spring on what had been city land at Hancock and Thames Street.

Across from WEX on two sides are hotels. The Marriott AC opened this summer; the Residence Inn diagonally across from it opened almost a decade ago. Moving uphill on Hancock Street past Middle and Newbury to Federal streets brings more development that has cropped up in the last decade.

“It is pretty exciting in a way as this has been in the planning process for a long time,” O’Brien said. “This shows our economy is really well rounded.”

But Ruotolo is not alone in feeling the city has stopped listening to the neighborhood while embracing development plans.

“I don’t think it is a good thing to be walled in by tall, ugly buildings,” Mountfort Street resident Gemma Cannon said Monday.

A board member of the Washington Square Homeowners Association, Cannon and her family moved to Portland 20 years ago from Philadelphia. She has memories of that city’s congestion and development, and said she sees it happening now in Portland.

From its intersection with Congress Street to its curve just beyond Eastern Cemetery, Mountfort Street is wide enough for two vehicles to pass with room for parking. It all goes downhill as the street narrows from Federal to Fore streets.

“It is a wacky little street, every once in a while only one car fits,” Cannon told the City Council Sept. 17.

Cannon said she and her neighbors have already endured congestion during construction that has blocked her in her parking lot, or had her waiting 15 minutes to get through the traffic signal at Congress and Mountfort streets and Washington Avenue.

Ruotolo and Cannon said the city has stopped listening to longtime residents, but O’Brien said a new collaboration with developers is designed to confront the concerns.

Large-scale development requires traffic movement permits based on how many trips are generated to a proposed site. In this instance, developers are seeking a combined permit to encompass the WEX, Shipyard and 100 Fore St. properties.

“We need to get it right and coordinate it, to look at it holistically,” O’Brien said. “If we screw up the traffic patterns and getting people around, we lose the benefit we get from these developments.”

O’Brien has noted Cohen could already build a 600-space garage at 100 Fore St., and there are already 330 surface spaces in the area. Yet with the city planning to develop Thames Street and build Amethyst Park between it and the waterfront, pressure from increased traffic will extend beyond the sites seeking the combined traffic movement permit.

O’Brien said the two garages would likely remain as part of the permit, while the city also looks to alternative ways of getting visitors and employees to the waterfront.

By signing on to the combined effort for the permit, none of the projects can be occupied until it is granted.

In the meantime, some residents remain displeased by the rapid pace of change in the neighborhood and what is being lost.

“It is crazy to see all this,” Star Ortiz said as she pointed to the homes built on the site of the former Village Cafe on Newbury Street.

A day earlier, Abt paused while walking her dog on Fore Street. She looked at the Residence Inn and spoke above the construction din at WEX.

“I just think of visions lost,” she said, “of what we are losing in history and the waterfront.”

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

As seen from the Casco Bay Lines parking garage, development along Portland’s eastern waterfront is filling in land from Thames Street uphill.

Giuseppe Ruotolo and others who live on or near Newbury Street are concerned that redevelopment is removing views and eroding comfort on the streets above Portland’s eastern waterfront.

From the intersection of Thames and Hancock streets, the redevelopment picture in Portland includes the Marriott AC hotel at left, and WEX headquarters across the street at right. More development will fill land a block up and over on Fore Street.The view down Hancock Street from Federal Street in Portland is filled with new hotels and homes, and will soon feature redevelopment at the Shipyard Brewing site.Redevelopment in and near Portland’s eastern waterfront includes this rendering of the mixed-use plans at Shipyard Brewing on Newbury Street, which extend down to Fore Street.

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