Portland planners weigh options for waterfront building heights

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PORTLAND — City officials plan to present a fourth option for proposed amendments governing West Commercial Street building heights at a Nov. 22 Planning Board workshop.

Just what the option may be was not determined in a 2 1/2-hour community meeting Nov. 3 at Reiche School.

“We really want to facilitate a discussion that will lead to solutions,” Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman said about meshing economic development with preservation of waterfront views.

The conflict is not new in Portland, but has moved west along the waterfront to the area of the burgeoning container ship business on West Commercial Street.

On the acreage extending west from the Casco Bay Bridge to Cassidy Point, which includes the expanded International Marine Terminal, city officials have considered whether buildings should be allowed to reach 70 feet. The change to the Waterfront Port Development Zone would most immediately affect plans by Americold to build a warehouse adjacent to the terminal.

“They are the catalyst for this proposal, but they are not the only beneficiary,” Needelman told the audience of about 50 people, about half of whom had attended an Oct. 25 Planning Board workshop on the zoning changes.

So far, city planning staff have presented options to allow building heights of 70 feet in the entire zone, where heights are now capped at 45 feet; to only allow a height increase for cold storage and warehouses, or to allow higher buildings for cold storage and warehouses only in the area between the Casco Bay Bridge and School Street extension.

Zoning text to fully define cold storage would also be added to the city code.

Americold has not approached the city with plans for a cold storage warehouse, but the company responded to a request for proposals by the Maine Department of Transportation and Maine Port Authority as part of a $20 million, two-phase terminal expansion.

Since 2013, the terminal has been the North American hub Eimskip, an Icelandic container shipping and receiving business. A second crane will be added to the terminal, and the new expansion phase could be completed in 2018, the MDOT announced in a July press release.

MDOT officials said the expansion could increase container traffic to 50,000 annually by 2020.

Cold storage could benefit Maine exports and allow the city to compete globally while luring jobs from other ports, Economic Developer Greg Mitchell said.

Neighbors already dealing with increased noise and light from the expanded operations and truck traffic said they also worry about views of the harbor being obstructed as commerce grows.

“This building looks pretty large to me. I don’t think we are hurting economically and I worry about the quality of life,” Linwood Ashton said.

Needelman’s presentation showed how the warehouse might affect views, especially from Salem and Summer streets. He said the largest impact would likely be seen on York Street as it dips west and downhill to Commercial Street.

The presentation also showed how the waterfront has been divided. The east end is now home to the Ocean Gateway Terminal and a cruise ship business that brought more than 100,000 visitors to the city this year. The center area, from the Maine State Pier to the intersection of Park and Commercial streets, is filled by lighter marine uses. The western area is a deep-water zone well-suited for freight.

“This is the life blood of the port of Portland,” Needelman added.

The “life blood,” however, runs through a narrow vein. The land between Commercial Street and the water is a thin strip, and the MDOT has already added more rail capacity that inhibits building wider, lower structures.

Needelman said the city could look into whether Americold could reduce the warehouse height by building on a pier, as suggested by Stephen Small of Summer Street. 

Phineas Sprague Jr., who moved Portland Yacht Services to West Commercial Street after selling the former Portland Co. land at 58 Fore St., said increased building heights would allow his company to repair and paint more boats, including the ferries operated by Casco Bay Lines.

Sprague said he didn’t think it was fair to ask for an exception to building heights when he moved his business, since he had supported the 45-foot cap. However, he added that a chance to increase the height would benefit the company with more work and architecture that is better suited to the work he does. 

City Planning Director Tuck O’Brien said the new height guidelines would likely move through the Planning Board process and in front of the City Council in the first quarter of 2017.

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

Portland officials said Nov. 3 that the western view west from York Street could be affected the most if a 70-foot-tall warehouse is built to handle shipping containers.

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.