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At one time, the West Bayside neighborhood was a rundown industrial area of scrap yards and warehouses.
There's still some of that, but the neighborhood may be turning a corner. A growing number of retail and residential offerings are attracting visitors and prospective residents to the area between Congress Street and Marginal Way.
The latest testament of transformation was the March 16 ribbon-cutting on Bayside Bowl's 25,000-square-foot expansion, giving the bowling-and-live music space a total of 40,000 square feet. It was made possible by owners Justin Alfond and Charlie Mitchell's purchase from the city of an adjacent salt-and-sand shed property, for $340,018. Total investment in that purchase plus build-out was $3.5 million, says Alfond.
The venue, which first opened at 58 Alder St. in 2010, added eight lanes to its existing 12. In addition to its existing main bar and restaurant, it now has a mezzanine with full bar, old-school arcade, rooftop bar with a taco truck and fire pit, and 422 roof-mounted solar panels. Employment is expected to increase from 28 to 38.
“One piece is that permanent residents are coming here for the first time in a long time,” Alfond says. That includes restaurants like Isa and Bayside American Café, long-timers like Portland Architectural Salvage, and Maine's fastest-growing company, Apothecary By Design. “All around West Bayside, there's interest, there's activity.”
The West Bayside neighborhood is defined by Forest Avenue, Marginal Way, Franklin Street and Cumberland Avenue. It includes extensive retail on the fringes — including national retailers like Eastern Mountain Sports, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods — and pockets of residential areas. It also has several significant gaps, deteriorated areas with a recycling facility and the city's maintenance depot. The E. Perry Iron & Metal scrap yard is opposite Whole Foods. Two vacant lots, 3.5 acres, are tentatively earmarked for the proposed Federated Cos. development, with plans for 450 housing units and retail. City officials and developers would like to see the neighborhood fill in with a mix of luxury and affordable housing, creating a 24/7 neighborhood while catalyzing surrounding neighborhoods.
There's evidence that might be taking place already.
At 72 Parris St., partners Neil Spillane and Eric Holstein in April 2016 purchased a 5,700-square-foot, century-old brick building and transformed it into a collaborative commercial kitchen, Fork Food Lab.
Spillane, former CEO of Portland's Urban Farm Fermentory and a founder of Bay One food hub, says he wanted to build a kitchen to mentor small food businesses and provide a venue for tastings. He was attracted to West Bayside for its revitalization potential.
“Things have been going great,” he says. “We're ahead of where I projected us to be. We've been open seven months now and we're at 27 companies in the incubator. We've had very successful events.”
Fork had originally planned to open its catering arm this summer, but demand was such that it launched two months after Fork opened.
“People are gravitating toward the idea of hiring Fork because they know the food is made locally and all the money will be paid to the small businesses that created the food in front of them,” he says.
Companies range from brand-new, still in the R&D phase, to established players needing kitchen space for new recipe development.
“In the incubator environment, everyone is working with each other, to help solve problems, to connect them with the right resources,” he says.
Fork is designed to fit 45 to 50 companies and is at roughly 60% capacity, but is still receiving inquiries.
Plans for the future include opening a stage-two facility offering stand-alone kitchens with shared services.
Spillane says West Bayside has proven an exciting place to be.
“We have this close-knit group of people who are entrepreneurs or developers down here, and we all share in the excitement of how West Bayside is going to evolve to be in the next 10 years,” he says. “We see it as the place where Portland locals come for experiences and to have fun. The Old Port is where tourists visit. But West Bayside will be that place where you go to bowl, taste food, work out, do some shopping — and it's still convenient.”
Spillane says he's intrigued by the novelty West Bayside poses even for Portland residents.
“The average Portlander hasn't driven around West Bayside,” he says. “People coming to Fork sometimes are trying to figure out the maze of streets down here. I see that as an opportunity. There's value to be unlocked, because it's a cool area and you have a rich industrial background and a lot of history.”
On Marginal Way, partners Josh Benthien and Rex Bell, owners of the commercial real estate development company Northland Enterprises LLC, have completed the first phase of their multi-phase redevelopment of 45 Marginal Way, 1 Marginal Way, 200 Kennebec St. and 202 Kennebec St.
Part one is the rehabilitation of a building at 45 Marginal Way into a retail development they've named Century Plaza — honoring the site's former occupant, Century Tire, which was there for 88 years and closed in 2014. Today, 4,000 square feet is anchored by Chipotle and T-Mobile; another 4,200 square feet is vacant, but Benthien says he's talked with several interested parties.
“We've been selective about who we put in,” he says. “We've had interest from larger national tenants. But we have a couple of national tenants in here already, so we're trying to find the right fit for a local, diverse mix.”
An existing Enterprise Rent-A-Car is at 1 Marginal Way — a site that has been the focus of a two-year planning process by Northland.
“It's a gateway site we feel honored to be able to transform, but we want to do it with the right mix of density, unique design and tenancy,” Benthien says.
Benthien has explored ways to provide a long-term home for Enterprise, whether that's a possible move into Century Plaza, or as an anchor tenant on the ground floor of a multi-floor redevelopment at 1 Marginal.
Enterprise is a valued member of the community, he says.
“As we went through the different neighborhoods and presented this project two or three years ago, one thing we heard was that Enterprise was an important amenity downtown, because a lot of folks who don't own cars can rent there as needed,” he says.
Across from Century Plaza, at 200 Kennebec St., Northland earlier this year recruited a popular Falmouth deli, Leavitt & Sons, to open a second location once a rebuild is completed. No plans are in the works for 202 Kennebec St., home to Aquarius Ballroom Dance Studios and Enterprise's wash bay.
Parking is an issue, says Benthien. Construction of a parking structure is part of the conversation.
Benthien likes the neighborhood's synergy.
“Those of us in West Bayside are really proud: We're all talking about how to make it better,” he says. “I'm excited by the possibilities, and generally by the neighborhood's excitement to see things get done.”
Another major redevelopment is the emergence, nearly complete, of 55 residential units inside a historic John Calvin Stevens-designed building until recently occupied by sauce manufacturer Schlotterbeck & Foss. Located at 117 Preble St., it's now called 117 Lofts. The project preserves historic elements while building new systems and modern amenities.
A group of investors bought the building in January 2016 and invested about $7 million, with the idea that demand for housing in Portland begged new stock and that this location contributed to West Bayside's transformation.
“The location is compelling,” says investor John Anton, a Portland-based community development and housing consultant. “It's two blocks from Monument Square, you can do everything on a pedestrian basis, but if you need to drive somewhere you're also two minutes from the highway on-ramp.”
Construction was recently wrapping up and marketing ramping up. The lower two floors are already occupied by Maine College of Art students.
While Portland's transformation in the suburbs-to-city migration now has history behind it, Anton says, West Bayside's identity is still emerging.
“I think it's a chance for a little more of a middle-income resident base. That's a market segment under a lot of pressure on the peninsula,” he says. “We'll get more people living in Bayside at all income levels and really contributing to the vibrancy that we already have in Portland, but expanding it and serving a broader range of folks.”
Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell says a huge catalyst for development will be the city's sale of seven Department of Public Works parcels, which total four acres — comprising land and buildings that could be redeveloped between Portland, Parris, Alder and Kennebec streets. The city is in the process of putting them on the market.
“The zoning for these properties basically supports mixed-use development,” Mitchell says. “These four acres can dramatically influence the development direction in West Bayside,” changing their prior industrial use of truck and equipment storage and repair, now relocated to Canco Road. “We're removing that influence. It's been holding the area back from realizing its full development potential.”
The city's goal, he says, is to stimulate private sector investment for 24/7 mixed-use development such as small retail or residential.
Other projects include road improvements. The city also in 2016 sold 3.5 acres of abandoned rail corridor along Somerset Street to Federated Cos. for residential/retail development. That project is on hold, says Mitchell.
That hasn't stopped progress.
“Seven years ago,” says Bayside Bowl's Alfond, “the people who lived here had a lot of pride and a vision, but there wasn't a lot of activity and not a lot of businesses moving in. A lot of buildings were used during the day, but at night it was pretty quiet. Now people are looking at West Bayside as an opportunity to grow their business. There's more activity at night, and it's exciting. People want to be here.”
Bayside Bowl's expansion, says Alfond, resulted from the place's popularity. That includes frequent league bowling, individual bowlers, private events, and a musical scene that includes everyone from national acts to locals to a special spot every month for high school bands.
But popularity called for more space.
“We were developing a reputation that people couldn't just come in and play because there were long waits,” says Alfond.
That kind of excitement exactly fulfills Alfond's vision for West Bayside from the beginning.
Growing up in Waterville and Dexter, Alfond is the grandson of Dexter Shoe Co. founder and philanthropist Harold Alfond. He got into bowling thanks to the Dexter bowling shoe.
“Growing up, I spent a lot of time in bowling alleys,” traveling with his father on company business and landing in local bowling alleys to sell shoes. “So that was in my DNA.”
In 2004, Alfond, a former Democratic state senator from District 27, moved to Portland and read about Charlie Mitchell — a Maine lawyer and former representative for Vassalboro in the Maine Legislature's House of Representatives. Mitchell was starting a league. Alfond joined the league; the two talked about starting an alley. Looking at downtown property, they found the former Skillful Home Recreation building, its warehouse perfectly sized for 12 lanes.
“We talked with the neighborhood association and area businesses and neighbors,” he says. “People were excited. Seven years ago, some parts of Portland were doing quite well and a lot of things were happening. But Bayside was pretty quiet.”