A local developer wants to build the first hotel on Portland’s central waterfront, a cluster of piers historically occupied by fishing and marine businesses.
The project also includes a parking garage and would be located on the harbor side of Commercial Street, in front of a controversial Old Port condominium development that decades ago sparked a citywide referendum to prevent development from pushing out commercial fishing and other waterfront-dependent uses. While rules have changed since then to allow developments such as restaurants and offices on the nearly mile-long stretch, past efforts to build a waterfront hotel have never succeeded.
Now David Bateman, of Bateman Partners, is looking to build a four-story hotel with 96 rooms, restaurants, a four-story office building and parking garage at Fisherman’s Wharf on land now mostly used as parking lots. The Portland Lobster Co. would be torn down to make way for a public plaza, said architect David Lloyd.
“We’re just putting our feet in the water, but I think this project has huge potential,” Lloyd said.
Bateman, who redeveloped Fort McKinley into the Inn at Diamond Cove and built two mixed-use buildings in the city’s Old Port, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Lloyd said no plans have been filed with the city, but they are being floated with community groups, such as the Waterfront Alliance, which saw the plan Tuesday night.
For the project to move forward, the developers will have to receive a conditional rezoning from the city. Hotels were not addressed in the City Council’s 2010 rule changes that loosened development restrictions along a portion of Commercial Street.
Steve DiMillo, whose family owns Long Wharf, said he is enthusiastic about the proposal. At some point, his family plans on redeveloping its large surface parking lot with a mix of retail, offices, parking and perhaps other uses.
“I’m excited about the project. It’s a great alternative to an open parking lot. And they’re good operators,” DiMillo said. “Eventually, we envision developing Long Wharf. We’re glad he’s dipping his toe in the water first.”
But the proposal was met with skepticism by some in the commercial fishing industry who use fishing shacks and pier access at Widgery Wharf, which sits next to and behind the project site.
Bob Blethen, 58, of Yarmouth, grew up in Portland and has been working on the city’s waterfront repairing boats since the early 1980s. He remembers train tracks along Commercial Street when the waterfront was predominantly an industrial area. Businesses supplying the commercial fishing industry once lined the waterfront, but have since been replaced by other uses, including tourism-related businesses. The latest example of change in the area is Rufus Deering Lumber Co., a 162-year-old Portland company that supplied fishermen and other waterfront businesses before closing in November. It is expected to be redeveloped into condos.
“Pretty much anything you need you have to go to Scarborough or Westbrook or out of state,” Blethen said.
‘NOT A WORKING WATERFRONT ANYMORE’
Jon McCann, a 37-year-old lobsterman, said he worries about the future of Widgery Wharf, one of the last remaining wharves where fishermen can service and store their lobstering gear.
“You hate to see the working waterfront disappear,” McCann said. “It’s not a working waterfront anymore. It’s a tourist trap.”
According to draft concept plans, a hotel with a rooftop lounge and restaurant would be built to the east of the access road to the Chandler’s Wharf condominiums. On the western side of the access road would be a nearly 3,600-square-foot retail building facing Commercial Street, with a 475-vehicle parking garage behind it. The four-story office building with first-floor restaurant would be located behind the garage on the waterfront and be surrounded by an outdoor area.
Commercial development between Commercial Street and the waterfront has been a contentious issue for decades, especially since the Chandler’s Wharf condominiums were built in 1980s.
The development prompted a citywide vote that prohibited non-marine uses on the first level of piers in the Waterfront Central Zone, which stretches from, but does not include, the Maine State Pier to the International Marine Terminal. The effort also led to a prohibition on residential condos that is still in effect.
A hotel was proposed as part of the controversial and unsuccessful effort to redevelop the Maine State Pier in 2007. Four years later, developer Eric Cianchette sold Maine Wharf at 68 Commercial St., after he was unable to build a 100-room hotel in the Waterfront Central Zone.
In 2010, the City Council loosened those restrictions in an effort to allow pier owners to generate the revenue needed to maintain them, while also protecting the working waterfront. The changes generally allowed new buildings for non-marine uses within 150 feet of Commercial Street. But that zoning was extended for the surface parking lots, which have served non-marine uses, between Long Wharf and Union Wharf.
“Due to their location and their history as non-marine uses, their transition was not seen as a loss to the marine community,” said Bill Needelman, the city’s waterfront coordinator.
NEW RULES DIDN’T ADDRESS HOTELS
The council’s changes also allow for up to 45 percent of a building’s ground floor to house non-marine tenants, but only after the space is unsuccessfully marketed to marine businesses for at least 60 days at a reasonable rate. They also require developers to invest 5 percent of the overall cost for projects exceeding $250,000 into maintaining waterfront infrastructure, such as piers.
The new rules were endorsed by pier owners and fishermen alike, who worked for several months to reach a compromise.
Since those changes, non-waterfront-related businesses have begun to take root along the piers, including the Portland Science Center, Scales restaurant and the Kings Head Pub.
Last October, the Proprietors of Union Wharf received unanimous approval for a three-story office building and restaurant at 230 Commercial St. That project, which is next to the potential Fisherman’s Wharf project, was the first to take advantage of the so-called Non-Marine Use Overlay zone.
While offices and retail space are specifically allowed in the overlay zone, hotels were neither explicitly allowed nor prohibited by the changes made in 2010, so Bateman Partners would have to seek a conditional rezoning, Needelman said.
That means the Fisherman’s Wharf project has a long road ahead. Their zoning request will have to be taken up by both the Planning Board and City Council. If approved, the formal site plan application process would take place before the Planning Board.
The proposal comes on the heels of strong year for Portland area hotels. Despite the addition of hundreds of hotel rooms in the city’s downtown area, and more on the way, hotels on the city’s peninsula reported a 70 percent occupancy rate for 2015 – well above the state average of 56.7 percent, according to a recent presentation to the Maine Real Estate and Development Association.
McCann, the lobsterman, said many tourists like to visit Widgery Wharf and talk to fishermen. However, the appeal of visiting a city with lots of restaurants, craft beer, coffee shops and commercial fishermen could be the undoing of the working waterfront.
“The people who are coming here want to see this,” said McCann, surrounded by snow-covered lobster traps stacked seven high. “But you need hotel rooms to put them in.
“It is what it is, I guess.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: