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- The Forecaster
PORTLAND — Celebrated as a milestone in waterfront redevelopment, opening of the new WEX headquarters on Hancock Street March 8 came after a traffic control permit was temporarily set aside.
“WEX asked, and the City and (Maine Department of Transportation) agreed, to allow WEX to start moving into their building ‘at risk,'” City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said in a March 7 email.
The “at-risk” factor is a state traffic movement permit that was supposed to be in place before occupancy was allowed by the city.
MDOT spokeswoman Nina Fisher said Tuesday the company did not receive a waiver.
“They are still required to go through the permit process,” she said. “If elements pop up as result of their permit for traffic mitigation and traffic safety, they obviously have to execute those changes,” she said.
The MDOT permit will cover WEX, and developments at the Shipyard Brewing Co. and 100 Fore St., the site that had been home to Hamilton Marine.
WEX spokesman Rob Gould said Monday the company is eager to alleviate potential traffic congestion in the eastern waterfront area.
The decision to allow occupancy was not put in writing.
“It was all verbal from a meeting,” Grondin said in another email Monday. She said she also expects the permit to be completed soon.
“We are meeting with MDOT to discuss draft findings in the next week or so,” Grondin said Tuesday. “Then we should be ready to move on to conditions and final issuance.”
Besides WEX, a payment services company that had been based exclusively in South Portland, the 100,000-square-foot, four-story building at the corner of Thames and Hancock streets also contains 10,000 square feet to be leased as retail space.
Gould said more than 400 employees are moving from South Portland to Hancock Street, and WEX is already taking steps to alleviate traffic they would generate.
About 1,000 WEX employees will remain in South Portland in buildings on Darling Avenue, and the company is operating three shuttle buses throughout the day for Portland-bound employees.
As part of the initial planning in 2017, parking was set up in the Ocean Gateway garage on Fore Street. Zoning required 258 spaces for the project.
Gould said the company is also offering employees $1,000 annually not to drive to the Portland building and built bicycle storage areas and showers at the new headquarters to encourage using other modes of transportation.
Developer Jonathan Cohen built the building on land that was a former city parking lot; it was sold for $3.3 million in August 2017. The Planning Board approved the site plan in October 2017, before site plans for Shipyard and 100 Fore St. were under consideration.
After neighbors objected to the scale of developments in the area, developers came together with the city and state to produce a unique combined permit, expected to be ready for the WEX opening.
The permit requirements were specifically a condition of approval for the site plan at 100 Fore St., where Cohen is building a mixed-use development, including a three-story, 539-space parking garage that will include spaces for WEX.
The 100 Fore St. site now has 136 parking spaces.
The Shipyard development will include a 105-room hotel and the new corporate headquarters for Covetrus (formerly Vets First Choice).
While envisioned as an area prime for development for decades, transformation of the area bound by India, Thames and Federal streets has accelerated in the last five years.
Along with the newest projects, the AC Hotel by Marriott opened last year across from WEX, and next to that are condominiums at 20 Thames St.
The new WEX headquarters on Hancock Street in Portland was granted occupancy despite the lack of an overriding traffic permit requirement. The permit is expected to be completed soon.
WEX, which recently opened for business in Portland, will continue to employ 1,000 people in South Portland, but shift from this Gorham Road building to ones on Darling Avenue. The company will operate shuttle buses from there to its new Portland headquarters.