by Luke deNatale
If you walk along Fore Street, on the sidewalk closest to the water, between Waterville Street and Atlantic Street, you can see Portland Harbor. The view is a bit obstructed by a chain-link fence, but it still affords a decent view of activity of large cruise ships, lobster boats and other marine craft moving in and out of the harbor.
This area of space has become the focal point of a struggle between a group of concerned citizens and a development corporation. The question determining what we Portlanders wish to do with this space will appear on our ballots in the form of Question 2.
The language of the ballot question is as follows:
Shall ‘An Ordinance to Add a City-wide Scenic Viewpoint Protection Tool to Portland’s Zoning Ordinance; to Save the View of Portland’s Working Harbor from Upper Fore Street as the First Protected Scenic Viewpoint, and to Require Certain Information to be Provided to the Public as part of a Zone Change Request, with a retroactive effective date of May 26, 2015,’ and a copy and summary of which is printed hereon be adopted?
Many of us chafe at the language of these ballot questions because we wish for a clearer delineation of what exactly is at stake when we vote Yes or No. A brief history of the issue at hand should make it clearer what voters have at stake.
At 58 Fore Street stands the Portland Company, a historic building which was recently acquired by a development firm called CPB2 LLC. This development firm purchased the property for $14 million dollars in 2013 from the previous owner. The company itself is the same company responsible for being the driving force behind The Press Hotel, formerly the home of the Portland Press Herald.
According to a CPB2 LLC press release, the goal of the development at 58 Fore Street is to, “create a public plaza that will substantially increase access from Fore Street directly to Portland’s waterfront for all of Portland’s residents and visitors.”
A citizen’s organization, Soul of Portland is responsible for backing the referendum to prevent CPB2 LLC from encroaching on the aforementioned 400 feet of scenic views on Fore Street. If you are looking out over the harbor within the 400 feet of space between Waterville and Atlantic Street and you approach the chain link fence and look down, there is a substantial drop down to the foundation level of the building on the parcel of land that CPB2 LLC owns.
Soul of Portland’s main concern, and the reason for the referendum is to secure the view for the public to enjoy. Anne Rand, spokeswoman for Soul of Portland asserted that the development company could proceed as they would like. However, her concern is for the view.
“The can build up to the level of the sidewalk, they just cannot build up above the sidewalk level.”
Jim Brady, manager of CPB2, LLC characterized Soul of Portland’s argument, “Their concern is that the height of the building even though it is within the zoning and within what is defined by the Eastern Waterfront Masterplan, it could rise to the maximum height of 35 feet above the grade of Fore Street. There is a zone across the street that allows buildings to be built 45 feet above the grade of Fore Street, but they don’t want any buildings to rise above the grade of Fore Street on the opposite side of the street.”
Mr. Brady maintains that the development of the Portland Company would mean, “$1.5 million in additional property tax revenue to the city annually and housing for over 387 people. Over $215 million in construction-related direct and indirect spending that would create roughly 1,400 jobs and $68 million in wages.”
However, Ms. Rand remains unconvinced that this move is the best for Portland and cited a historical example of a push for development in the late 1980’s.
“In 1987 Portland went through a huge referendum, and it was to protect the waterfront from condominium development, it passed overwhelmingly and City Hall was against it, the developers were against it, Chamber of Commerce was against it, the newspapers, everybody. ‘There would be no development.’ The same stuff they are saying now. Now we have Eimskip, a cargo port – which would have been all condos – and it’s expanding, there are good jobs. Its good for Portland.”
Mr. Brady maintains that this development will respect the historic aspects of the Portland Company as well as improve the space.
“We have from day one always anticipated the rehabilitation and effective reuse of the historic core of the Portland Company complex. That was always within our designing guidelines when we started working with planners. That was always our goal, to push them to enhance the historic core of the building.”
Gentrification of neighborhoods has also become a topic that the young, rising urban class of Portland has seethed against for a few years due to the influx of young individuals from affluent cities creating demand for high-priced housing that is out of reach for most natives. However, Mr. Brady maintains that the proposed 387 housing units would be dictated by market demand.
“It will be driven by the market dynamic at the time that the development goes forward, but I will say that Portland has not seen many larger scale housing developments and when you do that you need to target a wide demographic audience, the market is quite shallow, so people who suggest that this would be hundreds of units of luxury condominiums is really a scare tactic, the market isn’t that deep. We anticipate a mix of rental and for sale product.”
Ms. Rand balks at the Soul of Portland organization being considered anti-development; she holds a firm conviction that she wants what is best for Portland on all fronts, both economic and from a historic preservation perspective.
“We are not opposed to the development, we look forward to seeing what they are going to do. What we are opposed to is the city going back on an agreement made that preserves the 400 feet of property above Fore Street. We oppose building above Fore Street and blocking that panoramic view of the working harbor. Which is the only public panoramic view of our harbor that exists.”
Simply speaking, voting Yes on Question 2, will be voting in favor of preserving a 400 foot view corridor on upper Fore Street. The development would not be able to build above the sidewalk level.
CPB2, LLC maintains that this would hobble future developments in Portland and cause economic loses detrimental to a growing city. Voting No on Question 2 would allow Mr. Brady’s development company to revitalize the Portland Company and build above sidewalk level. Soul of Portland maintains that this would harm future attempts to preserve scenic viewpoints on the peninsula.