Portland’s next big development project could redefine the city for decades

The view from Munjoy Hill over the Portland Company Complex. (The Forecaster photo by David Harry)

The view from Munjoy Hill over the Portland Company Complex. (The Forecaster photo by David Harry)

The Portland Planning Board Tuesday is scheduled to hold a public hearing — and potentially a vote — on a requested rezone of the storied Portland Company Complex at 58 Fore St.

While workshops about this zoning change have been going on since last August, a recommendation by the Planning Board would represent the next significant milestone on the way toward a redevelopment of the approximately 10-acre waterfront property.

Why is this rezone significant?

A little less than two years ago, I was working on a daydreaming piece about what Portland — already in the midst of a development boom of sorts at that point — might look like in 10 years. Christopher O’Neil, government relations liaison for the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce, called the eventual redevelopment of the Portland Company Complex a flashpoint that could “unleash a wave of positive development” collectively worth as much as a billion dollars.

The so-called International property on the waterfront Thames Street. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

The so-called International property on the waterfront Thames Street. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Just west of the Portland Company Complex is an undeveloped, 1.34-acre waterfront spot across the street from the Ocean Gateway Terminal — where all the cruise ships come in, and where city officials less than a decade ago approved an ambitious mixed-use project featuring 122 condominiums and 28,000 square feet of retail space.

That was before the Great Recession hit and sank many developers’ grand plans, but the property is now on the market and any future development there looking anything like what was previously approved could create a walkable connection between the Portland Company Complex and the tourist-friendly waterfront Commercial Street.

In fact, Jim Brady, one of the local developers who bought the Portland Company Complex nearly 19 months ago, specifically referenced the so-called International property (oft-referenced that way because of the Boston-based real estate group which owns it) and one other nearby as development-ready sites with potential to feed into — and off of — whatever takes place at 58 Fore St.

Any kind of ambitious redevelopment of the Portland Company Complex could also have ripple effects in the north and northwesterly direction, where city committees have been studying for years how to harness the development potential of the ripe India Street neighborhood and nearby Franklin Street — colloquially known still as Franklin Arterial, in homage to its regrettable highway-like characteristics.

A revitalization of the Portland Company Complex could pique development interest in the areas radiating away from it.

In short, with the Portland Company Complex at the epicenter, the next decade or two could bring about a transformation of the majority of the East End of the peninsula and change the way Maine’s largest city looks for years to come.

How would the rezone change what’s allowed at the property?

Long the home of businessman Phineas Sprague’s Portland Yacht Co., the Portland Company Complex has been under the Waterfront Special Use Zone, which has been fine for decades of boat maintenance and rehabilitation work there.

The Portland Yacht Co. has since been moved to West Commercial Street, just past the expanding International Marine Terminal.

cpb2 zoningBrady and his partners want the property rezoned as B6 business zone for just less than nine of the campus’ acres, and as Eastern Waterfront Port Zone for the remaining 1.5 acres or so.

Brady’s group contends that this new zoning is what the city envisioned for the property in its Eastern Waterfront Master Plan adopted nine years ago.

A zoning change — which would likely have increased property taxes — didn’t make much sense nearly a decade ago when Sprague owned the property, however, because Portland Yacht Co. could do what it needed to under the previous zoning.

The new owners of the property, however, could benefit from such a rezone. Why? Primarily, because the B6 zone allows for some residential development in the mix of uses there, and the lucrative sale of condominiums with water views could help bankroll more widely beneficial — but lower margin — aspects of a campus development there.

Those other aspects could include greater public access to the waterfront or a higher commercial use of the property’s 1,000-someodd feet of Casco Bay frontage.

The B6 zone would also allow the developers there to reach 65 feet in building height, however, and the prospect of increasing building heights in Portland always brings about controversy.

This case is no different — some Munjoy Hill residents have complained that the additional building heights would intrude on their views of the water.

The Forecaster’s David Harry reported the developers would seek to place any new buildings at least 35 feet back from Fore Street and within certain “view corridors” to protect water views along the intersecting streets, but those assurances haven’t quieted all the critics on that front.

How would the developers redevelop the site if the rezone is approved?

In a brief telephone interview today, Brady said he and his partners — Kevin Costello and Casey Prentice — aren’t putting the proverbial cart before the horse. They’ll make a more concrete master redevelopment plan for the property once they know what rules they’re playing by.

But he acknowledged that he’d seek to redevelop the place as a mixed-use property, with residential and commercial space, and said the complex could become an “interesting landmark destination” visited by locals and out-of-staters alike.

Those who know Portland know the Portland Company Complex has never really been a public destination — it was an industrial site until the late 1970s, and the Portland Yacht Co., while a stalwart part of the waterfront economy, wasn’t a tourist attraction.

The phrase “landmark destination” could hint at shops, restaurants and other attractions.

Brady confirmed he and his partners will seek to save between nine and 12 of the complex’ 14 buildings, depending in part on the results of a structural report. Those 9-12 buildings will represent a historic “core” of the campus that can be renovated and built around.

Harry reported the century-old property is eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places — a designation which would carry certain limitations for what the developers could do with the site — but that Brady said such a distinction wouldn’t be necessary to motivate him to save what can be saved.

“There are a couple of pre-Civil War buildings that we believe are some of the more unique buildings on the complex,” he said Monday. “This is a very unique site. Not only due to its history and the role it played there dating back to the middle of the 1800s, but it’s also a very sizable property. It also happens to abut Casco Bay and have about 1,000 feet of frontage on Casco Bay.”

Brady cautioned that Portland’s not a big enough city to absorb all at once the units a redevelopment of this magnitude could bring. So he said it’s far more likely he and his partners will propose a phased development plan that would play out over 10-15 years.

What happens next?

On Tuesday night, the Planning Board could vote to recommend the rezone to the larger City Council, which would take up the measure at a meeting likely within the next few months.

If the Planning Board recommends it and the council approves it, the property owners will draw up plans for what, specifically, they’d like to build there and which buildings they’d try to reuse.

Those plans would then need to go through the Planning Board process again for site plan approval. If the application process for Bayside’s Midtown development proposal — another major development project with the potential to transform a Portland neighborhood — is any indication, we still could be years away from any shovels hitting the ground at the Portland Company Complex.

But whatever happens there — whenever that is — could define Portland for years to come.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.