The Portland City Council is scheduled to consider a plan that will make what looked like a sweet deal for the city a little less sweet. It will now be up to the council if what’s left is sweet enough.

The issue is a proposed tax break for Waterfront Maine, the company that owns the Cumberland Self Storage building which juts into Portland Harbor.

The real estate company has proposed turning the old warehouse into an office building, which would become the headquarters for Pierce Atwood, Portland’s biggest law firm. Waterfront Maine asked the city for a $28 million tax break over the next 20 years, which it said it needs to be able to finance the deal. The company proposed making the conversion while still abiding by the city’s zoning, which reserves the docks and first floor space for water dependent marine industrial uses.

But when the Council’s Community Development Committee put language in the tax proposal that would guarantee that restriction remained even if the zoning changed, the property owner balked.

Now Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who voted for the original language, is submitting an amendment that would strip the working waterfront language from the proposal.

The proposal would still be a good deal for the city in one respect: Even with the tax break, the building would generate far more tax revenue after the upgrade than it would in its current condition. Critics of the deal focus on the $28 million Waterfront Maine wouldn’t have to pay in taxes, while they forget about the $27 million it would pay over the same period.

But without the working waterfront restriction, the deal is less attractive. It made sense to offer a tax break to the company to get it to do something that it otherwise wouldn’t do, but it makes less sense to subsidize the project and let the owner off the hook if proposals to change the zoning are successful.

Keeping the restrictions would not unfairly burden the project, as Leeman argues. If the tax break is approved, the project would already be singled out and treated differently than its non-subsidized neighbors.

If the council does strip out the working waterfront protections from the proposal, councilors should be ready to explain why this deal is still good enough, and what criteria they applied to reach that determination that could be equally applied to every taxpayer that is not getting a deal like this.


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