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Right time, right place for major commercial development in Portland's eastern waterfront

BY Maureen Milliken

1/21/2019
Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Richard Brescia, a vice president at Cianbro, which built the future WEX Inc. headquarters (at right) in Portland's East End. At left, is the new AC Hotel by Marriott.

When WEX Inc. employees start moving into the payment processing company's glass-encased new headquarters on Feb. 1, it will mark the beginning of a new era for the city's oldest neighborhood.

While the roughly four-block area east of Hancock Street and at the foot of Munjoy Hill has gone through a lot of changes over the past four hundred years, it's never seen anything quite like this:

  • More than 700,000 square feet of new construction.

  • 2,500 estimated new workers in the next three years.

  • $256 million in development investment.

And that's just from five major projects that have been completed or started in 2018 and the first weeks of 2019. It doesn't count the more than a dozen projects in the last three years east of India Street on Portland's eastern waterfront.

“It's been some time since we've have this amount of activity in one area,” says Richard Brescia, vice president of Cianbro, the state's largest construction firm.

Cianbro is construction manager on the WEX building, at the corner of Thames and Hancock streets, as well as on the planned 100 Fore St. mixed-use project on the same block. That project was approved by the planning board Jan. 8 and will include 539 parking spaces and 86,000 square feet of office and retail.

Next door to the WEX building, the 178-room, 120,000-square-foot AC Hotel by Marriott opened in July.

Two blocks away, Bateman Partners LLC is developing the 170,000-square-foot Vets First Choice headquarters, pharmacy and fulfillment center as part of a 211,000-square foot redevelopment of the Shipyard Brewing Co. property on Newbury Street. That project includes a 105-room “brewtel” hotel and parking for 389 cars.

“This is the most development the city has seen since the Great Fire of 1866,” says Jeff Levine, Portland's director of planning and urban development. “When there's this amount of development, people get concerned, but also allows us to become the city we want to be for the next hundred years.”

The first structure built by a white settler on the peninsula was in 1632, on the corner of what is now Hancock and Fore streets, just steps from the new WEX building.

The neighborhood, the city's first commercial core, has undergone a lot of change since, including rebuilding after most of it was lost in the 1866 fire, and then a second boom when the railroad was extended east down the waterfront.

The construction of the Franklin Street arterial in the urban renewal era of the early 1970s cut the eastern end of the peninsula off from downtown just as the railroad era that had kept it busy was breathing its final gasps. In the last half-century, the area went largely undeveloped.

WEX will lease 80,000 square feet in the new building at the corner of Thames and Hancock streets, which is owned by 0 Hancock LLC., which bought the lot from the city for $3.3 million in 2017.

The building also includes ground-floor retail and other offices, and is expected to initially house 450 WEX employees.

Cianbro finished up the WEX project just in time to get started on the 100 Fore St. project, also being developed by Jonathan Cohen, of 0 Hancock.

That project includes 275,000 square feet of new construction, more than half of it a parking garage with 589 spaces, the rest office and retail. Cianbro plans to start demolition shortly, Brescia says.

Cianbro is also building the marina at 58 Fore St. — the Portland Foreside project on 10 acres of the old Portland Co. property that's slowly coming together. (Consigli will handle other work there.) The marina plan is the one piece firmly in place, as it expands from 69 slips to 141, with financial support from a federal boating infrastructure grant. Plans for the six-phase project also include a 150-room hotel.

At nearby 86 Newbury St., owned by Shipyard Brewing, work has started. Bateman Partners LLC is working with Allied Cook Construction on the project, which will include a three-building multiple-use complex that stretches to Mountfort Street. It will include 170,000-square-foot headquarters for Vets First Choice. It's the first office building of more than 150,000 square feet built on the Portland peninsula in 25 years, says a broker for the property, Greg Boulos of The Boulos Co.

Cianbro hasn't had so many projects in such a condensed area in a long time, Brescia said. The company is using a lean construction approach. Rather than stockpiling materials on site, subcontractors give three days' notice on what's needed.

Scott Tompkins, Cianbro director of business development, says, “Initiatives like that help us on a tight urban site.”

“The key to success is planning,” Brescia adds.

That extends to making sure the projects the company is working on don't bump elbows with those going on down the block.

“It's a very integrated, very small community,” Brescia says. “In Maine, you have to be aware of that.”

Tompkins adds that's another place where the lean approach helps. “We're all in the same room at the same time.”

Cianbro isn't the only firm that's been involved in multiple projects in the neighborhood. Archetype Architects, which designed the WEX building, for instance, is also designing the Vets First Choice building and has about a dozen projects east of Franklin Street.

Landry/French Construction is another company that, amid the big developments, built several smaller condominium and retail developments in the neighborhood in the last year.

The Scarborough firm recently wrapped up the $10.5 million 54,000-square-foot commercial and residential condominium and residential Mason Block, at 62 India St., which was completed in August. It also just completed cPort Credit Union's new 6,880-square-foot building at 35 Middle St., on the corner of India Street. Last year it finished off the $8.5 million Luminato condominium project at Franklin and Newbury streets and the $10.5 million Seaport Lofts at 113 Newbury St.

“Everyone's still seeing a lot of construction activity,” says Kevin French, executive vice president of Landry/French. “People think it's going to slow down, but I'm not seeing it. It's good sailing right now.”

A moratorium on waterfront development and a task force set up to look into developing on the working waterfront development doesn't affect the four-block area east of Hancock. Bateman Partners, however, on Jan. 11 scrapped plans for a proposed Fisherman's Wharf hotel farther west, on Commercial Street.

Still, there has been neighborhood concern about traffic and parking, as well as impact on the neighborhood's residential and historic character.

The area's streets are narrow and many are lined with small clapboard houses. Shipyard's property is directly across the street from the historic Abyssinian Meeting House, the third-oldest African-American meeting house in the U.S.

Narrow Mountfort Street snakes down from Congress Street between the Eastern Cemetery and 1970s-era townhouses to the Shipyard/Vets First Choice development site.

Levine says consideration of the historic nature of the neighborhood, as well as traffic congestion and lack of parking, are all part of the conversation.

While hundreds of parking spaces are being added in the four-block area, the city is also working with the property owners on the WEX and 86 Newbury projects to find ways to mitigate parking and traffic issues.

WEX, aside from providing employee parking in Ocean Gateway parking garage, 167 Fore St., and the new 100 Fore St. garage, plans to run shuttles for employees from offsite. All of the new developments also have bicycle parking.

The city, which is extending Thames Street to help ease traffic, is also looking at adding smart traffic signals that adjust to traffic flow. “You can't eliminate every car, but there is a lot that can be done,” Levine says.

It's important for the growth of the city to have people with disposable incomes to live, work and spend money “at the coffee shop, at the bookstore,” Levine says.

He said it's better for the city, and Maine in general, for development to happen where it historically has, “instead of growing further and further out into the Maine woods.”

The eastern waterfront area was pocked with vacant lots and underused land left over from the railroad era. Recent zoning changes, too, helped spur development in the neighborhood.

“It's hard to pinpoint any one thing,” Brescia, of Cianbro, says. Migration to urban areas is happening all over the country, Brescia says.

But with all the elements in place, he and Tompkins say the end of the recession was a spark.

“We're still seeing the residuals of the pent-up demand from years of nothing happening,” says Tompkins.

Brescia adds, “The economy changed and it opened up the gates.”