PORTLAND – The Portland Society of Architects (PSA) supports the proposal to change the zoning of the south side of Commercial Street — known both as the working waterfront and the Central Waterfront Zone. Put simply, the changes increase the amount of space that can be devoted to non-fishing uses.

However, this proposal does not do enough to spur investment on the waterfront or guarantee that the working waterfront benefits from such investment. That is why PSA thinks that residential uses on the waterfront are crucial and it is why we support efforts to fund pier repairs through non-marine investment.

First, some background.

Portland’s piers are survivors from the age of four-masted schooners, when the world’s bounty arrived at our harbor and onto our wharves. When the age of sail ended, these structures were put to use by the fishing industry.

Portland is one of the few seacoast cities where piers have not given way to concrete breakwaters, upscale markets and re-created seaports. Portlanders are proud of their unique waterfront and are delighted to share the sights, sounds and smells with visitors.

The waterfront is central to Portland’s identity as “the city by the sea.” Commercial Street has been named one of the best streets in America.

However, time, use, wood borers and silt are taking a big toll on the piers, and the seafood industry no longer provides the rents to cover maintenance.

Portland’s authentic waterfront will survive and flourish only if it can once again adapt to new circumstances.

The proposal before the City Council protects spaces currently used by the fishing industry with a surplus for the future. It protects views of the harbor down the streets (“view corridors”) of the Old Port. And it ensures that new uses won’t interfere with, displace or obstruct marine activities.

WHY HOUSING WOULD HELP

Today there is a prohibition on living on the south side of Commercial Street. This ban dates from the public outrage engendered in the 1980s by the construction of the Chandler’s Wharf condos, which displaced active fishing businesses, blocked access to the water and shut down the pier to all but a privileged few.

But housing, like other new non-marine uses in the new proposal, would not be permitted to obstruct, block or displace marine activities or gate off public access.

In fact, excluding housing guarantees that improvements to the piers will be hobbled. Dwelling units will offer benefits that law offices, T-shirt shops and cafes do not. Housing produces 24-hour, year-round activity and customers for a diversity of businesses.

Housing does not undermine or compete with offices and hotels or with small businesses and restaurants, but it does attract investment that is less speculative and possibly more fruitful than others.

The Planning Board has recommended that the City Council approve the zoning change and initiate a reconsideration of the housing ban. The PSA urges the City Council to show equal vision by supporting the recommendation.

Decisions made in an earlier time under different circumstances should not keep our leaders from making decisions that are right for now.

PAYING FOR PIER IMPROVEMENTS

Mechanisms for putting money into pier repair and maintenance should be developed before the proposed zoning goes into effect. Architects are not financial wizards, but we believe that there are at least two ways to do this, and that both ways can work side by side.

First, before any non-marine development anywhere on a pier gets city approval, a percentage (say 5 percent) of the total project cost must be set aside for specified improvements elsewhere on the pier. Certificates of occupancy would not be issued until the improvements were made.

If the pier getting the development doesn’t need that degree of investment, then the funds would go for improvements to other piers.

There are many precedents for this kind of set-aside in the development world. It is not enough to hope that investment will generate improvement. There should be a “pay to play” obligation.

Second, since the city recognizes the value of the waterfront to the city as a whole, we must create the means, through low-interest loans, grants, tax incentives or other devices, to maintain piers where non-marine development does not take place or where a set-aside is not enough to address all the needs.

It is time for the city to acknowledge the importance of these properties before they collapse into the harbor and more than $1 million in tax revenue sinks with them.

 

– Special to The Press Herald