PORTLAND — Owners of a 19th century warehouse along the city’s waterfront received clearance from planners Tuesday night to turn the building into offices for a law firm.

The decision by the Planning Board came a day after Waterfront Maine received a $2.8 million tax break from the City Council to help turn the 100,000-square-foot brick structure known as Cumberland Cold Storage into new offices for Pierce Atwood.

Chris Pachios, a representative for Waterfront Maine, said the owners still must secure a few more permits before renovations can begin, and hope to start soon. Pierce Atwood’s lease at One Monument Square expires in March 2011.

The proposal was fast-tracked by the board, at the request of the applicant.

The former molasses canning plant at 254 Commercial St. is in need of extensive renovations. Improvements will include opening up all the boarded and concrete-covered windows in the five-story building, adding an entrance of glass and steel and repointing the bricks.

The plan also includes leaving six berths for fisherman along the east side of the pier, along with space for them to stack lobster pots and other equipment, and six parking spots. The first floor of the building is currently reserved for marine-related uses (dictated by zoning) and has no tenants lined up.

The top four floors will be predominantly occupied by Pierce Atwood.

“I have every confidence this is going to be a signature building,” Planning Board member Joe Lewis said. The board approved the project 4-0, with Lewis, Janice Tevanian, Michael Patterson and David Silk present. Bill Hall, Lee Lowry and Carol Morrissette were not at the meeting.

The board said Waterfront Maine must provide 191 parking spots, 71 of which will be on site. The developer will contract for off-site parking with other property owners, including the city for parking at Portland Fish Pier.

The council on Monday approved a 20-year, $2.8 million tax increment financing deal with Waterfront Maine in order to move the $12 million renovation project forward.

Greg Mitchell, the city’s economic development director, said City Manager Joe Gray was contacted in January by Pierce Atwood and told the firm had tentative plans to move to South Portland. Mitchell began working with the firm at that point to find a place in Portland.

“We offered to work with them in an aggressive fashion,” Mitchell told councilors Monday night.

Pierce Atwood employs about 175 people in Portland and is the state’s largest law firm. Councilor Cheryl Leeman said the TIF would allow the city to keep an important employer, renovate a blighted building and generate new taxes.

The council voted 8-1 in favor of the TIF agreement, with Councilor John Anton opposed. Anton objected to an amendment to the agreement that removed a clause that would have forced Waterfront Maine to keep the first floor of its building exclusively for marine-related uses.

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

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