Portland planners ponder changes for Canal Plaza, shoreland zoning

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PORTLAND — A developer wants a contract zone with the city to build a single-story restaurant and a penthouse-level executive club at Canal Plaza.

The city, meanwhile, has proposed reducing setbacks required by statewide shoreland zoning laws on several industrial and commercial zones, including Thompson’s Point.

Both issues were slated to be introduced to the Planning Board at a workshop Tuesday night. The board is being asked to make a recommendation to the City Council.

Tim Soley, of East Brown Cow Management, wants to build the free-standing restaurant at Canal Plaza on Middle Street. The brick-and-concrete plaza at the intersection of Union, Spring and Temple streets is typically used only during the day by people with business in the surrounding office buildings.

“The square has been impenetrable to pedestrians,” he said. “I want to open it up.”

Soley said he has removed fences that have historically blocked pedestrian traffic through the square and improved the lighting. He believes a restaurant in the square has the potential to improve nightlife in the Old Port.

“There is a huge demand for high-quality restaurants downtown,” he said. “Any use that is active at night and alive would be great there.”

Soley said several restaurateurs have contacted him informally about possibly using the space. But no decisions will be made until the zoning and permitting are in place, he said.

For the project to move forward by next fall, a conditional zone would have to be established within the next few months, waiving setbacks for the restaurant and allowing the single-story building.

Soley said he is open to other retail uses for the plaza, but would require hours beyond the usual 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“It’s still important to me to have something that has a broad time of use,” he said.

Soley is also requesting permission to build two penthouse levels at 1 and 3 Canal Plaza.

The penthouses would be constructed around existing rooftop heating and ventilation systems. They would not increase the height of the buildings, but would add about 10,000 square feet of usable space.

Soley said there has been interest in establishing an executive’s club with food, drink, function space and activity rooms for meetings.

City planners have suggested the board also look at the 1999 Portland Downtown Traffic & Streetscape Study along with Soley’s proposal.

The plan suggests ways to make the Union and Middle Street intersection more pedestrian friendly.

Shoreland zoning

City planners are also seeking to reduce minimum building setbacks from the high-water line in four zones: the I-L and I-M industrial zones south of Interstate 295, and the B-5 and B-5b urban commercial business zones.

Staff has proposed reducing the minimum high-water setback for buildings to 25 feet from 75 feet. Also proposed is a reduction in the pier-line setback on the eastern waterfront to 25 feet from 36 feet.

The proposal would also exempt these zones from shoreland tree-clearing standards.

“The amendments will advance economic development and redevelopment opportunities in developed urban areas along the shore,” Senior Planner Rick Knowland said in a memo to the board.

A city zoning map indicates the areas that would benefit from the relaxed rules include Thompson’s Point, the B&M Baked Bean factory, land to the east and west of the International Marine Terminal on West Commercial Street, and a small parcel near Fore and India streets.

Knowland said the changes are not in response to specific requests from landowners, but rather from an in-house review of the zones.

He was not sure if there were projects in the works that would take advantage of the relaxed zoning, other than Thompson’s Point.

Although he had not seen the specific changes being considered by the board, City Councilor Edward Suslovic said he hopes the review will take into account potential sea level rise.

“This is not something the city can afford to put on the back burner,” he said.

Suslovic, who believes potential sea level rise should be a priority, said there are indications that Portland’s sea levels are rising and storm surges at high tide are becoming more severe.

“Clearly, there’s always pressure from property owners to be able to utilize their oceanfront property more intensively, both for their own enjoyment and economic reasons,” Suslovic said. “I think this is where you have to step back and make sure that we’re taking into account future impacts as well as present.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.

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A rendering of a single-story restaurant eyed for Canal Plaza in Portland.

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