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January 14, 2019

Portland moves forward on tightening working waterfront zoning

Photo / Peter Van Allen
Photo / Peter Van Allen
The view from a working waterfront pier in Portland looking toward Fisherman's Wharf. The primary access road to the area used by lobstermen goes between a condo building and the Fisherman's Wharf parking area, which is being proposed for development.

PORTLAND — The city this week will move forward on a proposed zoning amendment that would block uses like hotels on the water side of Commercial Street, a response to backlash to recent waterfront development proposals, including a Fisherman's Wharf hotel proposal that was dropped by the developer on Friday.

"The proposed zoning amendment would take the uncertainty out of future development opportunities along the water side of Commercial Street," City Manager John Jennings said in a Friday news release.

Bateman Partners LLC dropped the plan for the 93-room hotel from its $40 million mixed-use proposal for Fisherman's Wharf Friday, citing its desire to put forward a project that would have support of fishermen and other waterfront stakeholders.

The zoning amendment announced by the city on Friday would prohibit conditional or contract zoning — project-specific use changes within a zone — in the Waterfront Central District, which stretches from Deake's Wharf, just east of the Casco Bay Bridge, to the Maine State Pier on the water side of Commercial Street. It includes 14 private piers and most of the city's commercial fishing fleet.

The amendment goes before the city's new Working Waterfront Group Thursday and the planning board Tuesday, Jan. 22.

"This change will go far in addressing one of the major concerns we heard from the fishermen of our working waterfront," Jennings said. He said the change will and other city efforts are an attempt to "make the working waterfront viable for generations to come."

Mark Robinson, spokesman for Bateman Partners, said Friday it's too early to discuss what a revised plan for Fisherman's Wharf would look like.

"They're doing what's best for the city," Robinson said of the proposed zoning amendment. "It's vital that any waterfront project have the support of the fishermen and their friends and neighbors, the other wharf owners."

He added that the Batemans "have been part of this city for decades, and doing what's best for Portland is the only way that the Batemans approach development."

Waterfront development, particularly the hotel proposal, had spurred a six-month development moratorium in December, as well as formation of the Working Waterfront Group to address concerns by fishermen and others concerned about the effect of development on the waterfront.

"The proposal is consistent with the goals and recommendations of the city's recent comprehensive plan that emphasize the importance of the working waterfront in Portland," said Jennings in the Friday release.

'Time to regroup'

The plan also included parking, office and retail space.

The proposal for the hotel had been before the city for two years, and Robinson said Friday it is too early to discuss details of what a revised plan would look like.

"[Bateman Partners] just spent several months designing new working waterfront features into their project, but events conspired to deny them the chance to present those ideas — to anybody. So it's time to regroup," Robinson wrote.

Last Monday, after the Working Waterfront Group met for the first time, Robinson said Bateman Partners was trying to work with those who were concerned about the project.

"The proposed Bateman concept has changed considerably, to include more marine uses, to help with congestion on Commercial Street, and to provide parking, access, infrastructure and promotional benefits to fishermen," he said. "The city's task force is proceeding, at least so far, without anybody having taken the opportunity to learn about these significant modifications."

He said that Nathan and David Bateman, of Bateman Partners, "feel pretty strongly that the fishermen should be first to hear about these ideas, directly and personally, in a setting that works for the fishermen. Their lawyer, their lobbyists and political consultants, and the fishermen themselves, are aware of this."

Increasing concern

"After many discussions with the Bateman family, I'd like to thank them for taking this important step, as we did not think a hotel use on the waterfront side of Commercial Street was compatible with our working waterfront," Jennings said Friday.

Loss of working waterfronts has become an increasing concern throughout coastal Maine in recent years.

In Portland, the city's most recent working waterfront inventory report, put together for the first time in five years for the Jan. 4 Working Waterfront Group meeting, shows the amount used for marine purposes has decreased 8% since 2013.

In October, Maine Preservation said the state's working waterfront's are some of the Maine's most endangered spaces. Of the state's 3,500-mile coastline — 5,300 miles when islands are included — only 20 are working waterfront. By 2050, most of the coast will be classified as suburban/urban, according to a state planning office study, "because of economic pressures that induce communities to shift to non-maritime commercial and residential uses," Maine Preservation said.

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