A pair of meetings last week demonstrated that there is still a lot of concern about the future of Portland’s waterfront, if not a consensus on what to do about it.

That wasn’t true 25 years ago, when residential and commercial development appeared to be ready to crowd out thriving marine industries. Voters went to the polls in 1987 to approve a moratorium on development that later led to the 1993 working waterfront zoning ordinance, which, with some adjustments, is still in place.

Now waterfront property owners say that the economic activity from water-related enterprises doesn’t generate enough revenue to support investments they need to make in order to maintain piers and other infrastructure. They are asking for the strict zoning to be relaxed so they can find other ways to bring in money.

But it is unclear whether it is zoning alone that is restricting waterfront development.

Citywide, Portland is experiencing slow growth as a result of the national recession. There are undeveloped parcels near the waterfront, but not restricted by waterfront zoning, that are either empty or used for surface parking. If zoning was stopping investment on the piers, it stands to reason that those properties would go first.

While it’s true that the commercial fishing industry is suffering, there are still water-related businesses that use the piers. The lobster fishery is still active, despite low prices, and there are businesses that service those boats that need to be nearby.

If that level of economic activity is not enough to pay for maintenance — and the pier owners say it is not — then there may be other ways beside the zoning ordinance for the city to make those investments possible. Recently Portland gave a tax break to developers restoring the historic Baxter Building for use as a private office because city councilors were convinced that the project would have a positive effect on the neighborhood.

A functioning waterfront provides at least as much public good and similar consideration should also be given to fund improvements along the water’s edge.

Changes in the city’s parking code could also make development in the central waterfront more attractive.

The effort should not be to preserve something that no longer exists, but to make sure that there is a balance of uses in the district that gives the city its name. Changing the zoning ordinance is just one way to do that.


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