Officials seek a zoning change to allow a cold storage facility on the western waterfront; critics say it will ruin views.

City officials want to raise the cap on building heights along Portland’s western waterfront to make room for a new high-tech cold-storage warehouse at the International Marine Terminal that port officials say is needed to support the growth of the food and beverage, biomedical and pharmaceutical industries.

But some West End residents are fighting the proposed height increase to 70 feet, saying plans for the Americold facility, which they describe as a 3-acre white box, will ruin the view. Most new cold-storage facilities are 36 to 40 feet tall, and buildable under the waterfront’s current maximum height allowance of 45 feet, they say.

Mark McCain of Summer Street, who lives two blocks from the warehouse site, said the hulking “white blight” would destroy a dynamic river view.

“Americold has unveiled plans for the largest eyesore to ever call the Portland peninsula home: a white box, 70 feet tall, spanning almost 3 acres,” he wrote in an Oct. 21 letter to opinion page at the Portland Press Herald. “At the gateway to Portland’s waterfront, this looming hulk would offend residents and visitors alike.”

The height-increase proposal, which would raise the cap to just shy of the Casco Bay Bridge’s deck, will be introduced at a Planning Board workshop Tuesday at about 4:30 p.m. in Council Chambers at 389 Congress St. Americold already has unveiled its conceptual plans – and its argument for why a building that tall will help it maximize efficiency – to neighbors during a community group meeting this month. The city also plans a neighborhood meeting on Nov. 3.

Eli Dale works in her yard on Summer Street. She says she got permission to remove trees across the street, but hasn't bothered because the planned Americold facility would block views of the water.

Eli Dale works in her yard on Summer Street. She says she got permission to remove trees across the street, but hasn’t bothered because the planned Americold facility would block views of the water. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The height amendment is just one of several regulatory hurdles that Americold, the world’s largest cold-storage company, must overcome to break ground on the 120,000-square-foot warehouse it wants to build on 6.3 acres of state-owned land at the International Marine Terminal on West Commercial Street. Americold had hoped to start construction this year, but it is now aiming for a June groundbreaking.

Both the city and the state have been promoting industrial and port activity along Portland’s western waterfront for decades, and have funded purchases and improvements there to increase railroad, highway and marine transportation connections that will lead to increased cargo traffic, economic growth and jobs, according to John Henshaw, the director of Maine Port Authority, and Bill Needelman, the city’s waterfront coordinator.

The cold-storage facility will provide the refrigeration needed for fish processors and distributors on the waterfront, Henshaw said. It also will create the conditions needed for development of a secondary food-processing industry and refrigeration-dependent industries like produce, biomedical and pharmaceuticals, Henshaw said.

“Maine needs infrastructure to increase production and jobs,” Henshaw said. “This cold-storage facility will support those objectives.”

SPACE CONSTRAINTS

Americold says that it needs to build up to at least 68 feet to attain the 15,800-pallet storage capacity it needs to efficiently store refrigerated cargo. The horizontal footprint of the building is constrained by a number of factors, including the size of the site, the shoreline, the location of the rail lines that make the site logistically valuable, and space for trucks to maneuver, according to the height increase application.

Essentially, Americold says it has no choice but to go up if it wants satisfy its business model: 55 feet of clear space from the finished warehouse floor, which is level with the height of truck loading docks; to the bottom of the roof, which must be sloped to satisfy architectural load requirements. All that means a building that is at least 68 feet tall, Americold tells the city.

Americold claims any reduction in building height will cause the loss of an entire layer of pallets, which would significantly reduce storage capacity.

Needelman said the city’s current 45-foot building height limitations are proving “overly restrictive” to conform with policies to increase jobs and business at the port.

“If the buildings are too small, we can’t take advantage of our investments in public transportation resources,” Needelman said. That led the city economic development office, where Needelman works, to seek the building height increase. “Providing higher buildings for all permitted uses provides clear and fair direction for both the opportunities we know, such as Americold, and those which may come forward later.”

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Another tenant on the western waterfront, an 89-acre zone that runs from the Casco Bay Bridge to Veterans Bridge, has complained about the 45-foot building height limits. Portland Yacht Services, a boat repair facility, told city staff it would like to expand to service big local vessels such as the Casco Bay Lines ferries, which now travel to Boothbay, Belfast or Rhode Island for service.

Needelman acknowledges the Americold request has prompted concern from some neighbors, but city officials claim that no one would lose their entire water view if the maximum building height is increased. They also note that the site used to have a coal gasification plant, whose towers extended above the Million Dollar Bridge, the forerunner to the Casco Bay Bridge.

“Some neighbors are understandably worried about views from their homes,” Needelman said. “They are letting us know. Any development close to the water will impact views. We’ll work with our neighbors, the Planning Board and the City Council to understand the relative difference between the current allowances and proposed changes.”

The city has submitted three options for the Planning Board’s consideration. The city would like the board to raise the maximum building height to 70 feet, which is roughly seven stories, for any building allowed in the western waterfront zone. But if the board considers that too lenient, it also has suggested alternatives that would allow the increase only for a cold-storage facility such as Americold’s.

Any increase in waterfront building heights would trigger a Planning Board public hearing and, if approved, require approval from the City Council, Needelman said. If the city’s request is granted, Americold would still need zoning board approval of its site plan, but that would likely come far easier, with everything it would be seeking to do already allowed by zoning regulations.

Because it isn’t downtown, and is not deemed a historic district, the western waterfront has no design review process. That means Americold would not be subject to any requirement for beautification or landscaping efforts to make the building blend into the neighborhood. The property is at least 500 feet from the nearest residence, according to city calculations.