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Updated: February 10, 2020 Focus on Southern Maine

A $90M bet on Biddeford aims to turn an empty lot into an urban ‘pearl’

Photo / Tim Greenway; Rendering / Courtesy of MEREDA As part of Biddeford’s redevelopment, the former MERC site off Pearl Street is expected to take on new life with a project by developers Jim Brady and Brian Eng. They plan to turn the former incinerator site into a mixed-use neighborhood that will be pedestrian-friendly, with access to mass transit.

As Portland gets more crowded and expensive, Biddeford has become a new hotspot for developers attracted by its location and easy interstate access, young population and new businesses moving into renovated textile mills.

“There’s a lot of benefits that lead me to believe that Biddeford is long-term going to be a great economic engine here in the state,” says Jim Brady, president of Fathom Cos. in Portland.

Brady has seen changes firsthand after buying a former post office building in 2017, at 27 Washington St. He added a copper roof and removed mold, old boilers and asbestos-related insulation materials. As he seeks the right tenant — most likely for an open-space office or food and beverage facility — he’s embarking on a much larger undertaking in the same city.

Together with fellow Portland developer and investor Brian Eng, Brady aims to create the Pearl Street Riverfront District on two parcels inside the former Maine Energy Recovery Corp. waste-to-energy site, at 3 Lincoln St. Except for a smokestack, it’s an empty lot screaming for new life.

Brady and Eng are planning a whole new neighborhood around the $22 million city parking garage, construction of which is expected to start in March, and a planned riverfront park the city estimates will be completed by summer 2021. They envision an urban, pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented mixed-use neighborhood to complement the ongoing downtown renaissance.

Photo / Tim Greenway
In the plan for the Pearl Street Riverfront District in Biddeford, Jim Brady, left, and Brian Eng envision an urban, pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented neighborhood that complements the city’s ongoing renaissance. They estimate the building cost at $90 million for 300,000 square feet.

“Regardless of what Jim and I do, there’s around $100 million of development that’s occuring, and we have the opportunity to activate and integrate more innovative, transit-oriented urban development,” Eng says.

He also says that while high construction costs are scary, “one of the exciting things about ground-up construction is that we can really think about how we want this whole riverfront district to work, and how we want it to relate to the buildings that are already there.”

The Pearl Street project has an estimated $90 million tab for 300,000 square feet of new construction, according to Brady. His past collaborations with Eng include Philadelphia’s “luxury lifestyle” Fitler Club, which opened last year.

Closer to home, Eng’s Portland-area projects include 6 City Center and Chaval restaurant in the city’s West End neighborhood and Westbrook’s Stockhouse Station. Brady’s Portland portfolio includes the Press Hotel, in a 1920s-era former newspaper building, and the 135-room Canopy by Hilton hotel, now under construction.

‘Unique, long-term opportunity’

Turning their attention 20 miles southwest of Portland, the duo are keen to make their mark on Biddeford’s urban revival.

“We see this as a great, unique, long-term opportunity to help create a new urban fabric development in Biddeford that adds jobs, adds public excitement, areas for the public to enjoy like the park and urban streetscapes, and ultimately being able to build more housing, retail and office spaces,” says Brady. “That’s very good for the local economy and for the city of Biddeford.”

Eng, sitting with Brady at Fathom’s Exchange Street Portland headquarters, adds: “I view it as a regional opportunity. As the greater Portland area sees economic development, and we’re facing questions of congestion, how can we do smart, innovative development that really complements existing transit assets in a way that is not novel elsewhere, but Maine has not quite done it yet?”

They’ve worked on their plan with the city over the past year, holding brainstorming sessions, known as charrettes, with architects, engineers, urban planners and their consultants, Boston-based Goody Clancy and Portland’s Acorn Engineering.

Rendering / Courtesy of Fathom Cos.
Aerial rendering of the planned Pearl Street Riverfront District, on the former MERC site in downtown Biddeford.

Expected to get the official green light from the city by early spring, the plan includes building a pedestrian footbridge linking the Amtrak Downeaster train station with Saco Island and the future Pearl Street district, and using existing infrastructure to boost regional transit links with Portland and Boston.

“There’s nothing new that needs to be built,” Eng notes. “All we need to do is to build the connections.”

Sidewalk cafés, retail

On the construction side, Brady and Eng have sketched out a riverfront dining spot Brady says is being negotiated with Scarborough’s Nonesuch River Brewing. It’s flanked by a residential building and an office building with ground-level retail. Another sketch shows an office building with ground-level retail along a European-style shared pedestrian, vehicle and bike street akin to a so-called Dutch “woonerf,” or living street, like Munjoy Heights on Munjoy Hill.

“What we really want to create along Pearl Street, to the extent possible, are sidewalk cafés and interesting small retail,” says Eng. “There’s a ton of this creative economic activity in Biddeford already, but it’s hard to access.” On the traffic side, Brady says the idea is to make sure that cars drive slowly so that pedestrians and cyclists feel comfortable.

Brady emphasizes that the plans are fluid and that they’ll take their time to get it right, adding: “Obviously we’d love the opportunity to develop it as quickly as possible, but realistically, it’ll take us a while to market the site and to land the right tenants and also put together some residential development.”

Brady says they’re in talks with residential property developers, including Nathan Szanton of Portland’s Szanton Co., about building rental housing on the site and will soon be start talking to brokers about retail and office users.

Szanton, whose property portfolio includes the Lofts at Saco Falls and the Mill at Saco Falls in Biddeford, is looking at Pearl Street with great interest.

“As neighbors already of that area,” he says, “we’re really excited about what they’re doing. It has the potential to really enhance the Biddeford mill district and the downtown, and make it more of an amenity for the city.”

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February 10, 2020

Dreadful architecture without Biddeford character. This structure as drawn reminds me of low income housing in Queens.
Elevate the style!

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