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PORTLAND — The “elephant in the room” made quite a splash in City Hall Jan. 3 when the Waterfront Working Group met for the first time.
The “elephant,” as it was called by City Manager Jon Jennings, is a mixed-use project, with a 93-room hotel, planned by Bateman Partners at Fishermen’s Wharf, 184 Commercial St.
At the meeting, Jennings said city staff would immediately begin work on zoning revisions that would make the project impossible, rather than merely unlikely.
“We want it to go away,” lobsterman and group member Keith Lane said about the plans, which require City Council approval for a conditional zoning change within an overlay zone in the Central Waterfront Zone along the water side of Commercial Street.
Revisions drafted by city staff will be discussed at the groups 3 p.m. meeting Jan. 17, but Jennings cautioned three hours may not be enough time.
Lane and lobsterman Willis Spear, also a committee member, said the hotel plan was the tipping point for a petition drive to place a referendum on the city ballot to amend zoning all along the Commercial Street waterfront.
Spear said there are now about 2,200 signatures on the petition, 700 more than needed to send the question to city voters.
Having the city eliminate conditional uses in the overlay zone created in 2010 was seen by Lane and Spear as the least the city could do in good faith to preserve the working waterfront.
“Why would someone spend all that money for plans if they didn’t think they could get them approved?” Lane asked.
Councilor Belinda Ray said she and her colleagues were unanimous in opposing the zoning change Bateman Partners requested in May 2017. The request has been discussed twice by the city Planning Board, but not forwarded to the Council.
On Monday, Bateman Partners spokesman Mark Robinson said the revised plans for development should be considered.
“The proposed Bateman concept has changed considerably, to include more marine uses, (and) to help with congestion on Commercial Street,” Robinson said. “… The city’s task force is proceeding, at least so far, without anybody having taken the opportunity to learn about these significant modifications.”
Following introductions by the 12-member group – which also includes wharf owners Steve DiMillo, Charlie Poole and Mike Alfiero; Becky’s Diner owner Becky Rand; Downeast Dayboat Scallops owner Togue Brawn; community members Dory Waxman and Cyrus Hagge; and lobsterman Bill Coppersmith – city Waterfront Director Bill Needelman reviewed an inventory of the affected zone that showed a reduction in marine uses in areas other than the overlay zone.
Needelman attributed the decline from 75 percent of available space to 67 percent most directly to the new vacancy on the Berlin Mills Wharf. Outside the overlay zone, at least 55 percent of available space must be used for marine-related purposes.
Also of concern to the city and task force members are the losses of parking spaces and berthing areas.
Jennings proposed distributing parking tags, two per boat captain, to allow captains and their crews to be able to park at city spots without getting tickets. But he also said the city is limited in what it can do about spaces on privately owned land.
One solution could come as the city distributes tax increment finance funds for dredging to reopen berthing space. Jennings said the city could also require pier owners who get the funds to ensure people working on the waterfront will have adequate parking.
As the Portland Waterfront Working Group begins its work, members will first consider zoning revisions to block plans for a mixed-use development that includes a hotel at 184 Commercial St.
Portland City Manager Jon Jennings speaks Jan. 3 during the first meeting of the Waterfront Working Group, which will first take on zoning revisions along Commercial Street. The group meets next on Jan. 17.