PORTLAND — A proposal to covert a waterfront storage building into offices for a local law firm is on the fast track for approval from the city Planning Board.

At a workshop meeting Tuesday evening, building owner Waterfront Maine presented its plans to turn the 100,000-square-foot Cumberland Cold Storage building on Commercial Street into office space for Pierce Atwood, along with space for first-floor marine-related businesses.

Representatives from Waterfront Maine asked the board to send their proposal to a public hearing and vote as soon as possible. Tuesday’s meeting was the board’s first look at the plan; a public hearing and vote were scheduled for June 8.

The developer needs conditional use approval from the board to allow less parking than zoning requires. The board has the power to reduce that requirement because the development is larger than 50,000 square feet.

Planners on Monday also grappled with pedestrian access issues, access for lobstermen who have berths on the wharf and the configuration of a loading dock used by Browne Trading Co.

While the board goes through its site plan approval process, Waterfront Maine is also scheduled to go before the City Council with its request for tax increment financing to help pay for the project. The TIF would result in a $2.7 million tax break over 20 years.

The council had a first reading on the TIF request May 17 and could vote on it as soon as the second week in June.

The five-story brick building was constructed in the mid-1800s and was originally used as a molasses canning plant.

Waterfront Maine would renovate the building, including re-pointing the brick and opening windows that have been covered. A brick sidewalk would be installed along the width of the building, which is on Merrill Wharf.

The entrance would be about three-quarters of the way down the wharf, with a glass facade extending above the entry to the top of the building. A roof deck is proposed for the Commercial Street end of the building, where it dips to four stories.

The plan includes leaving about six feet of space along the wharf for lobstermen to load and stack gear. Six boats currently berth there and Waterfront Maine would be required to retain those berths, along with keeping the first floor of the building for marine use. Six designated parking spaces for the boat owners are also required.

Waterfront Maine under regular zoning would need to provide 228 parking spots; the company is asking for a reduction to 141 spaces. Representative Chris Pachios said the plan calls for 71 spots on the property plus a lease for 70 to 100 spots at the Portland Fish Pier, next door.

Pierce Atwood, with 175 employees, has said it needs about 150 parking spots.

While board members expressed enthusiasm for the project, some had some concerns about pedestrian access and the loading dock used by Browne Trading, which Waterfront Maine says encroaches on their property.

Pachios said his company is discussing the loading dock issue with Browne Trading. In its current configuration, it would require pedestrians to cross the loading dock to enter the Waterfront Maine property.

“I’m concerned about pedestrians and the loading dock,” Planner Joe Lewis said. “I love this project, though – I’m thrilled.”

Mark Usinger, a resident attending the meeting, warned planners that adding non-marine use to the waterfront could cause disruption.

“Browne Trading, that is the working waterfront,” Usinger said.

The Planning Board told Waterfront Maine come back June 8 with a more defined parking plan, including assurances it could lease space from the fish pier or elsewhere. 

The deal between Pierce Atwood and Waterfront Maine was in the works for several months before the proposal went public. Pierce Atwood is now housed at One Monument Square, but has been looking to move. Its lease there expires in March 2011.

Dennis Keeler, a partner with the law firm, on Tuesday said the firm hopes to move into the waterfront building next spring.

Waterfront Maine, which owns Fort Andross in Brunswick and manages properties in Portland, is a subsidiary of Waterfront New York. That company, run by Coleman Burke, owns a warehouse complex along the Hudson River in Manhattan that houses storage units and the Terminal Stores.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]

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