Portland opponents vow to fight 'Miami-type' waterfront development

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PORTLAND — From the viewpoint of Portlanders for Responsible Development, the view above 58 Fore St. should remain unobscured.

“Certainly, it would be a terrible loss, similar to what we had with the Portland House,” attorney Peter Murray said Dec. 22, two days after the city Planning Board unanimously approved a master development plan for the former Portland Co. property that could include buildings rising 35 feet above street level.

The approved master development plan does not allow developers CPB2 to move forward with specific construction projects on what is planned as a mixed-use site with a hotel, stores, offices, more than 630 housing units and a marina. The master plan is a template for development effective for six years or more.

“(It) insulates the project against regulatory change for as much as 10 years,” Murray said.

The next move for the group opposing development plans by property owners Jim Brady, Casey Prentice and Kevin Costello is not certain, largely because the next move by CPB2 is not certain.

Before the hearing, Brady said the “historic core” of seven buildings originally used by the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad for manufacturing, design and maintenance – now considered blocks one and two – could become the first site plans.

Those areas are largely intended for commercial and retail use, and a condition of the master development plan did not permit initial designs for building condominiums on top of historic buildings bordering Fore Street.

In September, Brady estimated development costs could reach $250 million in a three-phase plan that could take 10 years to complete. The complex also includes 13 submerged acres that will become a marina.

“Something like this is not going to be built in one fell swoop,” Brady reiterated Dec. 20.

Murray made a 15-minute presentation during a Planning Board meeting that lasted nearly four hours and was prepared for more, including video clips of city meetings dating to 2001 he said show the true intent of planning for the 10-acre site bought by CPB2 in 2013 from Phineas Sprague Jr.

The heart of the opponents’ argument remains in how building heights will be measured in the undeveloped portion of the 10 acres that are planned to become home to hotels and housing.

From the outset of the process to place the land in a mixed-use zone Sprague had not wanted while he owned it, opponents, including attorney Barbara Vestal, have said the Eastern Waterfront Master Plan requires building heights be measured from floodplain level. That master plan was incorporated into the city comprehensive plan a decade ago.

The floodplain measurement is used on adjacent land west of 58 Fore St., as opposed to the average grade measurement used throughout the city, and Murray said it applies to the Portland Co. If applied, it would prevent new construction from rising above the grade of Fore Street as it ascends to the Eastern Promenade.

It is an argument that has never gained traction with the Planning Board, and tested Chairwoman Elizabeth Boepple’s patience Dec. 20. It was also refuted by Victoria Morales of the city corporation counsel’s office.

When city councilors approved the zoning change to move development forward in 2015, the zone specifically called for the average median grade measurements. A failed referendum written by Vestal that fall sought to require the floodplain measurement.

Moving forward, Murray said measurement methods could come into play again, but arguing they are a part of the city Comprehensive Plan and its Eastern Waterfront Master Plan component could be clouded by the completion of a new Comp Plan in 2017.

“If the new Comprehensive Plan comes along, there will be citizen input and we would like to have input on whether it should allow Miami-type development on that property,” Murray said.

He added he feels the master plan also improperly uses the average grade measurement because the parking garage planned under the residential units and hotel is too large an area to consider.

Any opposition to individual site plans can still be based on the Comprehensive Plan, but the argument will be less of a consideration, city Planning Director Tuck O’Brien said Dec. 23.

“Level IIIs require consistency with the Site Plan ordinance and the Zoning Ordinance. We generally address the comp plan in the staff report on the project but technically compliance with the zoning and site plan standards at the Level III stage are what is required,” he said.

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

Redevelopment of the former Portland Co. property on Fore Street in Portland could begin with buildings once used for railroad manufacturing and maintenance.

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.