May 11, 2013

Vacancies plague Portland waterfront

Pier owners can't fill space for marine uses, and an updated inventory of tenants could have an impact on the way space is allotted.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Tenants of the Commercial Street building that houses the Pierce Atwood law firm have filled nearly all of the ground-floor space available for nonmarine uses now that owners of a new gastro-pub have decided to operate on Merrill's Wharf.

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The ground floor of the Merrill’s Wharf building has yet to attract a marine-use tenant nine months after Pierce Atwood moved into the upper floors.

2012 Press Herald file photo/Gregory Rec

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Renovations move forward on a building on Portland Wharf.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

But the space set aside for marine-use tenants remains vacant, despite marketing efforts by the owner's brokers.

Farther east on Commercial Street, the owners of Maine Wharf, which is being rebuilt, say they're seeing a similar trend, with high demand from restaurants and other nonmarine users, and little interest from tenants who conduct a marine-related business.

The struggle to comply with the zoning formula that applies on Portland's waterfront raises questions about the relevance of the marine-only designation. In the coming weeks, the city will receive an updated inventory of waterfront tenants to track how uses have changed since the city relaxed zoning laws to allow more nonmarine uses.

CBRE-The Boulos Co. announced this week that King's Head LLC has a lease for a 2,250-square-foot gastro-pub serving high-quality beer and food. King's Head currently operate pubs in Stowe, Vt., and Athens, Ga., and plans to open its Portland restaurant in September, according to CBRE.

When contacted Wednesday, Justin O'Connor, a partner in King's Head, said that, for marketing purposes, he is not granting interviews until the pub is ready to open.

"It's going to be a great addition to the building," said Anthony Gatti, a partner in Waterfront Maine, which owns Merrill's Wharf.

Since the former Cumberland Cold Storage building was renovated back in 2011, its upper floors have filled with nonmarine tenants, including the Pierce Atwood law firm.

So far the only ground-floor users are Stillwater Yoga, Federle Mahoney and Down East Enterprises -- all nonmarine.

Gatti said CBRE is currently negotiating a lease with an office user for the remaining 1,400 square feet of nonmarine space, leaving all of the roughly 12,000 square feet of space for marine uses vacant.

Real estate broker Drew Sigfridson said Waterfront Maine is reducing rents by 25-35 percent to land a marine tenant.

"All of the tenants that would qualify as a marine use are still not able to pay those reduced rents," Sigfridson said.

Until 2010, only marine uses were allowed on the ground floor of the 15 piers located in the Waterfront Central Zone, which runs from the Maine State Pier to the International Marine Terminal.

When pier owners complained that rents from marine tenants weren't enough to fund pier repairs, the city relaxed the zoning to allow up to 45 percent of the ground-floor space to be used for nonmarine uses, provided pier owners first marketed space for marine users.

Finding marine tenants is also a challenge for Maine Wharf, which is near Maine State Pier.

Pat Tinsman, who was speaking on behalf of pier owner Stephen Goodrich, said Maine Wharf has been looking for marine tenants for several months to no avail.

"There just aren't marine uses out there," Tinsman said.

City Planner Bill Needelman said city staff is updating an inventory of uses within the Waterfront Central Zone to present to the City Council in June.

The annual inventory is a way for city councilors to track the balance of marine and nonmarine uses on the waterfront. A baseline inventory was conducted in 2011, and the updated inventory will cover changes through 2012.

"There hasn't been a lot of activity," Needelman said.

The working waterfront is not as robust as it once was, especially when it comes to groundfishing.

In 2012, 6.3 million pounds of groundfish, valued at $7.8 million, were landed in Maine, down from 9.7 million pounds, valued at $12.3 million, in 2008, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Several of Portland’s waterfront piers are undergoing renovations. The projects include work being done at Boone’s restaurant on Custom House Wharf.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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King’s Head LLC has leased this space on Merrill’s Wharf for a gastro-pub that is scheduled to open in September.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


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