SOUTH PORTLAND — Portland’s working waterfront is experiencing a burst of bold, new projects, and some marine entrepreneurs are finding it challenging to find the space they need.

Has the city once more underestimated the potential of a working waterfront to keep re-inventing itself over time, despite inevitable fallow periods? Has it forgotten that changes in products, markets, transportation and technology take time to evolve into new ways of doing things?

Referring to Portland’s 1987 working waterfront referendum, which limited most piers to marine-related uses, your recent editorial, “Our View: New business incubator gives glimpse into city’s future” (Oct. 18), credited the referendum with having protected much of the waterfront.

It also noted the impossibility, back then, of foreseeing the coming of the Icelandic Eimskip container operation, soon to be linked to rail in a multi-modal dreamscape west of the bridge: water, highway, airport and rail. Nor could we have envisioned the exciting Ocean Cluster House, a marine incubator business that will host new products and provide trade opportunities.

No, the two out of three voters in Portland who voted to “keep the port in Portland” in 1987 could not have predicted those specific projects, nor the proposed tug and barge project that could revive coastal domestic shipping, nor the construction of the huge Cianbro ocean-drilling platforms at the Maine State Pier, a project that brought jobs, tax dollars and rental income to the city of Portland. Who could have imagined Shucks, the remarkable lobster-processing business, also now on Maine State Pier?

But in the 1980s, the residents of Portland did see their waterfront resource becoming a permanent haven for upscale condominiums and other non-water-dependent development, as has happened in other port cities. Almost every family on Munjoy Hill and many in the West End had generations of relatives who walked to good jobs on the waterfront.


People worried, too, that the nearly vacant land west of the bridge and other “idle” sites could be seen as “proof” that the heyday of the blue-collar waterfront was over. They saw good ideas for marine-related growth being rejected or ignored while the city hired a national consultant to map out a “highest and best use” waterfront scenario to feed the waterfront-hungry marketplace.

Many Portlanders were truly shocked by the presence of condominiums on Portland Pier and then on Central Wharf (now called Chandler’s Wharf), perhaps the most quintessential working pier and the one that provided the best berthing for fishing boats in the port. The voters flooded to the polls to save the waterfront from glamour fever and, with that, defend the genesis and namesake of Portland.

The condominiums and hotels could be up the street, the people said, and still have their water views, but boats, ships and the good jobs that go with them require water. Over the years, the marine-only zoning was watered down, and the results are obvious, but the working waterfront managed to survive.

In recent years, however, we have seen city leaders promoting hotel development on the publicly owned Maine State Pier, the very pier that the Ocean Cluster House business would like to occupy.

And there was again despair about the future of the working waterfront when tax dollars were used to encourage Pierce Atwood to convert the 98,000-square-foot Cumberland Cold Storage building (now needed by Eimskip) to a law office, and when live lobster and bait trucks were barred from using Commercial Street to access the piers with their perishable products on hot summer days, because of a road race or a parade that could happen anywhere.

But, yes, the future of the working waterfront “is looking very bright,” as your editorial observes. So, with the Portland Co. site on the drawing boards, shouldn’t the city be asking how it relates to the water rather than to the Old Port?

If given to upscale development, that historic property at the head of the harbor won’t be available to serve the always changing, but essential water-dependent uses that contribute to job creation and the common good, such as the harvesting of food and other sea products; transportation; shipbuilding and repair; import-export, and even national security.

From the Magna Carta to the Colonial Ordinance of 1641-47, to the successful Portland working waterfront referendum of 1987, the public trust right to access the water for fishing, fowling, navigation and commerce has been affirmed, and now is clearly not the time to sell it down the river.

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