August 6, 2013

Sale could spur major redevelopment on Portland waterfront

With Portland Company complex changing hands, how the prime site is redeveloped is drawing heavy interest.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Redevelopment of the Portland Company Marine Complex is likely years away, but city officials, neighbors and others are already weighing the potential of the prime waterfront property, including opportunities for business, housing and historic preservation.

click image to enlarge

The Portland Co. Complex is seen in this aerial photograph dated February 6, 2013.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

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The Portland Company complex sprawls along Fore Street as seen from the Ocean Gateway Garage. The property has been sold.

2012 Press Herald File Photo / Gabe Souza

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PDF: Portland's eastern waterfront master plan

CPB2, a Yarmouth-based development company, bought the 10-acre property on Fore Street last week from its longtime owner, Phineas Sprague Jr., triggering a series of land deals that could transform Portland's waterfront over the next several years.

CPB2 principals Jim Brady and Casey Prentice said they have no immediate plans for the sprawling industrial complex, which dates to the mid-1800s, but intend to redevelop it according to the city's Eastern Waterfront Master Plan.

City Councilor Cheryl Leeman was mayor when she appointed the committee that developed the plan more than a decade ago. The plan has been updated twice since then, most recently in 2006.

"It took a 32-member committee and lots of controversy to develop that plan, so it's nice to see this happening with the Portland Company property," Leeman said Monday. "It provides momentum for future development. It's the final piece of the puzzle."

CPB2 includes Brady, a Yarmouth resident who is redeveloping the former headquarters of the Portland Press Herald; the Prentice Organization of Yarmouth, a real estate holding company led by Prentice, who owns and manages the Chebeague Island Inn; and his father, Dick Prentice, a partner in the Portland law firm Pierce Atwood.

There are two minority partners, including a Boston-area investor, Brady said.

The Portland Company complex, with 1,000 feet of deep-water ocean frontage, is at the base of Munjoy Hill on the eastern waterfront. It now houses several businesses and nonprofits, including Portland Yacht Services, the Maine Island Trail Association and the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad and Museum.

Sprague, who sold the complex, plans to develop a boatyard up the Fore River on land on West Commercial Street that he bought last week from Pan Am Railways.

Sprague said he will remain the "master tenant" at the complex, which will continue to host boat and flower shows each year for at least the next couple of years. The new owners plan to upgrade the 128-slip marina at the complex, but Sprague will continue to run it.

The nonprofit that operates the railroad and museum has been planning to move, but Sprague said he hopes it will decide to stay.

Brady and Casey Prentice said they met recently with city officials to learn how zoning ordinances apply to the waterfront complex and express their willingness to collaborate with the city. They would not reveal the price of the property and said it is too early to discuss plans.

"We would envision mixed-use development in keeping with the city's master plan for the eastern waterfront," Brady said. "We do think there are some unique historical and architectural attributes of the property that may be preserved."

The Portland Company was founded in 1845 primarily to build steam locomotives for the new Atlantic & St. Lawrence Railroad, which had a terminal nearby. It operated until 1982, producing locomotives and railroad cars, marine engines, ships, elevators, paper and textile mill equipment and other cast-metal items.

The master plan describes the complex as an early manufacturing center with "several large brick-and-granite buildings of architectural significance," and notes that the Maine Historic Preservation Commission identified the property in 1976 as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

The plan recognizes that the site is highly developed and needs significant structural and cosmetic repair. It encourages "the adaptive reuse and sensitive rehabilitation of historic structures."

"The city stands behind its plan," said Deb Andrews, manager of the city's historic preservation program. "We'd like to maximize the preservation potential of that property. It's a good development team with significant background in historic preservation projects that marry modern and historic aspects of development."

If the old buildings were preserved, Andrews said, the developers would be eligible for state and federal historic preservation tax credits, which Brady is seeking for his plan to convert the former Press Herald building on Congress Street into a boutique hotel.

The Portland Company site is in a Waterfront Special Use Zone, "which allows and encourages active water-dependent uses and discourages uses that are incompatible with surrounding marine, residential and park uses," according to the master plan.

Planning officials are reviewing zoning regulations to determine how they might apply to the site, but it appears that it would be difficult to develop nonmarine uses such as housing or a hotel without a zoning change, said Jeff Levine, planning director.

The business community was abuzz Monday about the potential for the Portland Company site, said Portland Chamber CEO Chris Hall.

"This is a great step forward," Hall said. "It frees up potential for a whole bunch of development opportunities on the waterfront."

Hall described the Portland Company site as the next test of whether the city truly supports development.

"It should be a facilitated process for people who bring development proposals forward," Hall said. "It should be careful but fair and expeditious. And that doesn't mean easy or lax."

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. has worked on the waterfront since the 1970s, starting as a teenager and now as operations manager for Casco Bay Lines. He predicted there will be great interest in whatever happens to the property.

"It's an incredible location, but whatever is developed there has to coexist with the surrounding waterfront," Mavodones said. "There will be a slew of interests weighing in on this, and in my experience, complex developments like this take time for a reason."

Neighbors likely will be concerned about preserving water views, developing affordable housing, increasing public access to the waterfront and expanding public transportation, said City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who represents the district.

"Gentrification is a juggernaut on the East End," Donoghue said. "This is a very large property. If there's housing, the question is housing for whom and how much it will cost. It should be accessible for working families in Portland."

Markos Miller moved to Atlantic Street 16 years ago and can look down on the Portland Company complex from his home on Munjoy Hill. Miller, a former president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, said he hopes the new owners will preserve or expand waterfront access, and consider developing housing on the site.

He wouldn't object to a mix of other uses such as retail and offices. Miller also wants to see some of the historic buildings on the property preserved.

"I think people are a little excited but they are also holding their breath to see what happens," he said.

Joan Sheedy, who has lived on Munjoy Hill for nine years, said she was "thrilled to death" to hear that the property had been sold.

She has attended events over the years at the complex, including the annual flower show, and said the site has great potential. "It's a wonderful, huge parcel of land," she said.

Sheedy would like to see some type of housing on the site.

"We sure need more housing on the Hill," she said. "It's so crowded now."

-- Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

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