Proponents of business development in Portland's East Bayside neighborhood say the 130-acre area could see plenty of new restaurants, galleries, retail shops and industry because of its cultural vitality and proximity to Interstate-295 and downtown.
Evidence of that transformation is already apparent where World Fitness and Black Bear Medical occupy a building along Marginal Way that formerly housed a transmission repair shop. On Somerset Street, AAA Northern New England, Gorham Savings Bank and other businesses established a presence there because of easy access to I-295 and its visibility. Open Concepts Gallery & Studios in the Cove Street Art Center provides studio and exhibition space to 10 artists, "the marines of urban development," according to Kevin Bunker, an architect with Developers Collaborative in Portland.
Bunker expressed himself in a workshop on the creative economy, one of several offered during a recent three-day forum to consider sustainable design in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Bounded on the west by Franklin Arterial, the east by Washington Avenue, the north by Marginal Way and the south by Congress Street, East Bayside has a unique demographic that holds both potential and challenges for redevelopment. The forum drew city planners, a dozen architects, East Bayside Neighborhood Organization members and several planning consultants affiliated with the American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C., which awarded the city a grant for technical assistance last year.
Alan Holt, an adjunct professor at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service, sees great potential in the neighborhood, which includes nearly 200 units of public housing dominated by Kennedy Park.
"This neighborhood fascinates me because it is unique in the state of Maine," says Holt, who also owns Community Design Studio on Newbury Street, a business that specializes in community planning and urban design. He says it is the most ethnically diverse 100 acres in Maine - residents include Cambodians, Vietnamese, Sudanese, Somalis and Iraqis - and it is a five-minute walk to City Hall and the Old Port.
"It's the gateway to the city of Portland," Holt says.
Rezone, reuse possible in Bayside
One of those artistic "marines" Bunker cited is Jeff Ritter, owner of the Open Concepts Gallery & Studios in the Cove Street Art Center. "It was my dream to be where I am right now," says Ritter. "My whole building is full of artists."
Ritter says he purchased his building in 2004 and rents space to 10 artists in the back of the building. He also operates his business, J.S. Ritter Jewelers Supply, in the building. Next door Running with Scissors has 17 artists who create glass, jewelry, ceramics, photography and textiles, Ritter says. Zero Station, a facility that offers framing, printing and lamination and does exhibitions, is located across from the Rockingham Electric Supply Co. building on Anderson Street.
Nearby, developer Peter Bass transformed some housing into eight East Bayside Studios, which are live/work loft-style condominiums.
Alex Jaegerman, director of the city's planning division, says some areas of the neighborhood, such as Marginal Way where many artists have established studios, would need to be rezoned from light industrial to commercial to allow for businesses such as restaurants. Three years ago, the city rezoned a section of Somerset Street that allowed for the AAA building project to go forward. "Once you release the zoning, you release a lot of economic power as well," Jaegerman says.
But Ritter says he and other business owners are concerned that if the city changes the zoning from light industrial to commercial, the neighborhood could be overtaken by too much development. "What we'd like to see happen and what is probably going to happen are two different things," Ritter says.
East Bayside has the East End Shops on Congress Street, a host of small eateries, retail stores and shops, and some large industrial warehouses.
Drew Sigfridson, a broker with CB Richard Ellis/The Boulos Co. in Portland, says it's unlikely new offices or hotels will be developed in the area. But more businesses will likely consider reuse of existing buildings in East Bayside, such as the World Fitness and Black Bear Medical project on Marginal Way, which he calls a "great transition." Boulos is trying to sell a 3.5-acre parcel off Somerset Street that once belonged to the rail yards.
He notes that some of East Bayside's electrical, building and plumbing supply warehouses are empty now, but will likely rebound with activity as the construction industry recovers from the recession.