PORTLAND – A prominent law firm is asking the city for a $2.7 million tax break to help it move its offices from Monument Square to Portland’s waterfront.

Pierce Atwood, northern New England’s largest law firm, plans to leave One Monument Square, the 10-story downtown building that has been its headquarters since the 1970s. Its lease will expire at the end of March 2011.

The firm plans to move 175 employees to 258 Commercial St., a five-story brick building on a wharf next to the Portland Fish Pier. The building is now occupied by Cumberland Self-Storage.

Pierce Atwood would lease the building, which is owned by Waterfront Maine. Although the tax break would go to the building’s owner, Pierce Atwood would be expected to benefit in the terms of its lease.

The building needs extensive renovations to house law offices. Most of it has no plumbing, and its windows are filled in with concrete. The building would be renovated to meet city standards for energy efficiency.

The law firm wants a tax break to help offset some of the cost of the renovation.

Any tax break is subject to approval by the City Council. The council’s Community Development Committee will take up the issue on Wednesday.

According to a memo submitted to the committee Friday by Greg Mitchell, the city’s economic development director, the renovation is projected to add $12 million to Portland’s tax base.

In a proposal negotiated by Mitchell, Waterfront Maine would pay just over half the taxes it would otherwise have to pay over the next 20 years based on the property’s increased value.

Over 20 years, Waterfront Maine’s taxes would be capped at a total of $2.9 million. The city would receive $2.7 million in new taxes over those 20 years, Mitchell said.

The property’s taxable value is now $950,000, and the owner pays less than $17,000 a year in taxes.

Pierce Atwood had considered moving to a site in South Portland. Keeping the law firm in Portland is important because its employees and visiting clients spend money in the city, Mitchell said in his memo.

Besides granting the tax break, the city would lease to Waterfront Maine 70 of the 165 parking spaces it owns on the nearby Portland Fish Pier at the current market rate of $80 per month over the next 10 years.

The first floor of the 100,000-square-foot building would be reserved for marine uses — as required by the city’s waterfront zoning.

In addition, fishing boats would continue to be berthed along the wharf.

The developer plans to spend $250,000 for improvements to the wharf and $1.4 million to improve the ground floor of the building for marine use and public access to the water.

City Councilor John Anton, who serves on the Community Development Committee, said he is happy that Pierce Atwood has decided to stay in Portland and he is willing to support a request for a tax break that advances the city’s policy goals.

He said the amount of the tax break shouldn’t exceed the amount of money the developer would spend to improve marine infrastructure, provide public amenities and meet city standards for energy-efficient buildings.

Officials at Pierce Atwood and Waterfront Maine could not be reached for comment. Mitchell and City Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who chairs the Community Development Committee, did not return phone messages.

 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com