Portland Planning Board denies Canal Plaza changes, hears plan for Thompson's Point amphitheater

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PORTLAND — The Planning Board on Tuesday denied a developer’s request to build a restaurant at Canal Plaza in the Old Port.

Instead, the board issued an alternative recommendation to the City Council to allow the developer to add a floor to two buildings, in exchange for permanent protection of the pedestrian square.

The board also questioned the potential impact on traffic from a proposed events center at Thompson’s Point, which now may include an amphitheater.

Developer Tim Soley, of East Brown Cow, asked the board for a conditional zone change that would allow him to add executive penthouses to 1 and 3 Canal Plaza, plus a single-story restaurant in what is currently the pedestrian gathering area.

Soley said zoning laws would allow him to build a 35-foot building, but he sought a conditional zone change to build smaller and further away from the sidewalk.

Soley said the pedestrian plaza is under-utilized, even though his three office buildings are 91 percent occupied. Few people use the square after business hours, especially in the winter months, he said.

“Such voids are usually filled with elements that are not controlled,” he said, noting his staff often has to shoo away skateboarders and bicyclists.

Adding a restaurant, he said, would make it inviting, pedestrian friendly and “feel alive.

But several tenants of the Canal Plaza office buildings opposed the change, saying the plaza was never developed into a proper open space in the 1970s.

“It’s a key open space on Middle Street,” said Sarah Witte, a landscape architect hired by the tenants. “Once you lose an open space you never get it back.”

Witte said siting a restaurant in the square would come with a host of practical problems, including planning for delivery areas, emergency access, trash storage and fumes.

Rebecca Farnum, of the Thompson & Bowie law firm, said she has a corner office overlooking the plaza. She agreed the square is under-used, but said a restaurant is not the answer.

“I would suggest (the lack of use) is a result of the condition of the plaza,” she said.

Attorney Herb Henryson said existing tenants should be allowed to opt out of their leases if the restaurant is approved.

“I think we’re looking at a bait and switch,” he said.

The board ultimately denied the request, saying it is inconsistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which encourages protection of downtown open spaces and enhancing the pedestrian experience.

The request will be forwarded to the City Council, which has the final say. The board issued an alternative recommendation for the council to consider that would allow the additional penthouse suits, in exchange for preserving the square.

After the meeting, Soley said he was disappointed, but he would consider the alternative proposal.

Thompson’s Point

Jon Jennings, a partner in the Thompson’s Point development team, said the group is in discussions with a concert promoter interested in building an amphitheater at what will be called The Forefront at Thompson’s Point.

Jennings unveiled new plans that would create a retractable wall on the north end of the development’s proposed concert hall. It would open up to create the amphitheater that, combined with indoor seating, could seat 4,800 people.

The plan is part of a $100 million development proposal that would also bring a convention center and office buildings to the Fore River property west of Interstate 295.

It was the group’s second workshop with the board. And for the second time, they were grilled about traffic concerns and pedestrian accessibility.

The development team, consisting of Chris Thompson and Maine Red Claws owners Jennings and Bill Ryan Jr., unveiled new measures to handle event traffic.

For events that draw 2,500 people or more, they said, a special traffic management plan would be used. A police officer and several flaggers would direct traffic, and the Thompson’s Point access road would be equipped with a reversible lane to handle traffic before and after events.

After events, all exiting vehicles would be forced to turn right onto the Fore River Parkway, where they could access Interstate 295, the Old Port via Commercial Street, and South Portland via the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

Drivers who want to go west on Congress Street, however, would have to use the I-295 “clover leaf”: get on the northbound ramp and then immediately exit to reverse their direction.

The group also plans on creating a traffic demand management plan that over time, they said, would reduce the number of single-occupant vehicle trips by 20 percent. It would also establish in an on-site traffic coordinator.

Traffic engineer Randy Dunton said, under the worst-case scenario, the development would generate about 570 morning peak hour trips into the property and 955 trips out in the evening peak.

But Planning Board Chairman Joe Lewis said he is “deeply skeptical” about that figure, since it assumes more than three people per vehicle.

Board member David Silk said developers need to make sure pedestrians have the most direct route to and from the facility, and that pathways are wide enough to prevent people from spilling over into the streets.

“They’re like a herd of cows,” Silk said of people leaving an event. “They take the path of least resistance.”

Thompson said getting the traffic issues right is as important for the developers as it is for the city, since the group will be not just be building the project.

“We’re not just developers, we’re operators,” he said. “The fact that we’re going to run this, too, I think matters.”

Despite the board’s concerns about traffic and making the site accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists, Lewis said the city still enthusiastically supports the project.

“You guys are doing a great job,” he said. “But we will continue to hold your feet to the fire to make sure you do the best possible job.”

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