Group wonders if waterfront is working
Developers invite wharf owners to discuss whether more non-marine revenue is needed for pier repairs.
By JOHN RICHARDSON, Staff Writer July 28, 2008
A small group of developers is hoping to organize the city's wharf owners in support of more commercial activity on the Portland waterfront.
The Portland Waterfront Preservation Coalition, as the group is called, has invited the central waterfront pier owners to an introductory meeting Tuesday. The organizers include Ronald Ward and Robert Baldacci, both of whom were part of the Ocean Properties team that lost its bid to develop the Maine State Pier, and David Cohan, a former city employee who is now working as a development consultant with Baldacci.
The organizers are not pitching any specific developments or changes in the city's restrictive waterfront zoning and said it will be up to the property owners to decide whether to move forward and approach the city. But, they said, allowing "appropriate and rational development" in the city's core waterfront will pay for expensive maintenance and repairs of the city's aging piers.
"We do feel like this is the right time to take a real hard look at this," said Baldacci, brother of Gov. John Baldacci. "We're not suggesting it's time to put a wall of condos on the waterfront. It's about preserving the waterfront and preserving the working waterfront."
When Ocean Properties lost out on the Maine State Pier, Baldacci said that partnership would continue to look at other opportunities on the waterfront. But he said Friday that the coalition initiative is not related to any development plans.
"We don't have any agenda or any specific projects in mind at this time," he said. "We see the need."
The embryonic coalition is already generating curiosity, and some skepticism.
David Marshall, a Portland city councilor, said the group's new name – and its use of the word "preservation" – doesn't disguise its interests.
"If it looks a like a development team and it sounds like a development team, it's still a development team," Marshall said.
He said the city's waterfront debate is alive and healthy despite a zoning update two years ago that maintained a balance of uses. "The great thing about the central waterfront zone is it is mixed-use," with offices as well as fishing boats and processors, he said.
Waterfront development has been a touchy issue in Portland for decades. A 1993 referendum imposed restrictive zoning to protect the fishing industry and other marine businesses that rely on access to the water. Changes two years ago provided slightly more flexibility for pier owners who wanted more commercial opportunities.
In general, pier owners must reserve the first floor of buildings for marine-related uses, while upper floors can be for more lucrative non-marine uses such as professional offices.
Cohan, a Peaks Islander who managed waterfront properties for the city until about four years ago, said the coalition's initiative grew out of conversations about the crumbling state of the city's piers and the need for more revenue to pay for repairs.
"Coming in from Peaks Island, you can see that many of the piers have concrete barriers so that cars and people can't walk out to the end because they are not safe," he said. "If people just say, 'We like our waterfront the way it is,' 10 years from now it's not going to be the way it is."
Commercial development such as restaurants or coffee shops could help maintain the piers for fishermen to use, he said.
"If you assume you have to allow for some additional use on the piers to bring in revenue, the question is, what is the appropriate level to keep the integrity of the wharf," he said.
Kenneth MacGowan, owner of Custom House Wharf, said he relies on revenues from the non-marine tenants to maintain his wharf, parts of which were recently closed by the city because of structural problems.
"I've invested close to $200,000 in the last six months or so. Piers are an expensive thing," he said.
MacGowan said he planned to go to the meeting Tuesday to hear about the coalition's plans, but that he doesn't necessarily want zoning opened up for more development or non-marine uses. He's more upset that the city gave itself an advantage by allowing extensive commercial development on the publicly owned Maine State Pier and not on privately owned piers.
Charlie Poole, owner of Union Wharf, said he recently spent $10,000 just to replace five pilings at the pier. "I'm the first one to say those buildings need to work all the time if we're going to have a working waterfront. It's the upper floors that are subsidizing the" berths for the fishing industry, he said.
Poole said he's curious and will likely attend the meeting Tuesday. "If somebody's got an idea, it's important to listen to it," he said.
But, Poole said, the port's Waterfront Alliance, of which he's a member, has already been advising the city on development, zoning and working waterfront issues for more than 20 years. It helped develop the changes two years ago.
"We're all scratching our heads," he said.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: