Portland waterfront zoning changes get chilly reception from residents

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PORTLAND — A May 18 walk on the waterfront did not move proposed West Commercial Street zoning changes toward a Planning Board public hearing.

Instead, the site walk and subsequent Planning Board workshop guaranteed only another workshop in the future as neighbors remained skeptical of city plans to boost economic development in the area between the Casco Bay Bridge and Cassidy Point.

Danforth Street resident Reeven Elfman said he remained disappointed at the end of the site walk that drew about 30 people. “Most of the neighbors are against the zoning variances,” he said.

Neighbors, all members of the Planning Board, Portland Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman and Maine Port Authority Executive Director John Henshaw were among those to walk west from the gates of the International Marine Terminal, past the properties owned by Portland Yacht Services’ Phineas Sprague, to get a better sense of how increased building heights could affect the area.

Seen by city officials as one of the last opportunities for waterfront development, and home to the burgeoning container ship business operated primarily by Iceland’s Eimskip, the land along West Commercial Street between the street and water has a long tradition of industrial use.

The focal point of efforts to increase allowable building heights to 50 feet, with a 75-foot maximum as a conditional use, is a cold storage warehouse Americold Logistics wants to build as part of the IMT’s expansion near the Casco Bay Bridge.

Sprague said new zoning would also allow him to expand Portland Yacht Services.

“We’ve always had a paint building and a storage building in the plan, ” he said. “We can’t start until this gets resolved.”

Sprague now operates in a single building with a peaked roof that does not make for optimal use, he said.

“It’s an absolute waste of space and you can’t put windows into it,” he said.

Ultimately, city councilors must approve the zoning changes, following a Planning Board recommendation that requires a public hearing.

It has been more than six months since city officials began meeting with neighbors, and Needelman said the zoning has been tweaked to prevent buildings from lining West Commercial Street.

Elfman, Norris and resident Eli Dale said the cold storage warehouse Americold Logistics wants to build as part of the terminal expansion will blot out views and cause more truck traffic.

Sprague’s plans were seen with more favor, because of the marine uses and smaller impact on West Commercial Street traffic.

The warehouse could have space for more than 15,000 pallets, about three times what the original request for proposals to the Maine Department of Transportation listed, but the city has assembled studies from varied sources justifying the need for a larger scale of operations.

The economic benefits are expected to almost double from 2015 to 2018, according to a study by the state DOT, Maine Port Authority, the state Office of Policy and Management and Greater Portland Council of Governments.

The $171 million impact includes supporting more than 950 jobs and $34.5 million in environmental benefits due to a reduction in fuel costs, CO2 emissions, truck noise and highway maintenance costs.

A study from the University of Southern Maine estimated the economic benefit of expanded cold storage could reach $500 million to $900 million annually by 2025. Those benefits are spread across agriculture, marine, brewing and bio-pharmaceutical industries.

Dale remain unconvinced.

“No one opposes the cold storage,” he said, “but this violates the zoning.

The city also commissioned a study from TY Lin showing a minimal traffic impact on West Commercial Street from expanded cold storage, but Dale also had doubts about those findings.

“We go to bed at night listening to the sound of tortured elephants,” he said, describing the back-up alarms on trucks.

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

Phineas Sprague, right, owner of Portland Yacht Services, explains how current waterfront zoning restricts his business during a May 18 site walk on West Commercial Street.

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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.