The Portland City Council voted 7-2 early Tuesday morning to grant a controversial rezoning request for the redevelopment of 10 acres on the eastern waterfront, but the dispute over building heights and their impact on residents’ views of Portland Harbor is far from over. Opponents of the development are petitioning for a referendum that could overturn the council’s decision, and a lawsuit is possible.

The vote came shortly before 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, after a more than two-hour public hearing and an hour and a half of debate on amendments to restrict the redevelopment potential of the former Portland Co. complex. The conceptual plans discussed by the developers include residential buildings, offices and a Faneuil Hall-style marketplace.

Anne Rand, a former state legislator who is spokeswomen for the Soul of Portland group, which opposed the zone change, said Tuesday that some members were “very disappointed,” with the process and the lack of a compromise to retain views of the harbor.

Although councilors broadly described possible amendments, the public, unlike the developer, was not allowed to respond once they were proposed.

“They showed great deference to the developers and repeatedly called them back” to answer questions, Rand said. “Then, once the amendments are offered, the public has no say.”

Opponents were outnumbered during the public hearing by nearly 2-1. Rand said she was not surprised by the turnout but noted that 70 people have already signed the Soul of Portland’s petition to put the issue to voters in November.

City Clerk Katherine Jones said the group has until Aug. 14 to deliver petitions to City Hall with the valid signatures of at least 1,500 people registered to vote in Portland. Rand said the group is aiming for July 3.

Attorneys Charles Remmel and Jennifer Archer, who are representing four Munjoy Hill residents, including a neighbor of the project, could not be reached Tuesday to discuss the likelihood of a formal appeal.

Developer Jim Brady called the referendum idea “shortsighted” and a threat to future growth.

“What we witnessed last night was broad, diverse, and overwhelming support for the rezoning of the 58 Fore Street,” Brady said in a written statement Tuesday. “The entire Eastern Waterfront is very important to the future growth of Portland, which will benefit all citizens for generations to come.”

The developers are now turning their attention to the city’s Historic Preservation Board, which is considering designating 58 Fore St. a historic district. Such a designation would require the developers to preserve and restore some of the buildings, a few of which date back to the mid-19th century. The board has held three workshops and conducted a site visit.

“Reinvigorating a historic core through adaptive reuse has been one of our guiding (principles) from the start,” Brady said.

A study by Sutherland Conservation & Consulting states that the Portland Co. complex has national historic significance because it appears to be the country’s first and only remaining site where all aspects of manufacturing railroad equipment – from the foundry to the machine and car shops – were housed in a single facility.

Brady, a managing partner of CPB2 LLC, bought the 10-acre Portland Co. site for $14.1 million in 2013 from Phineas Sprague Jr. Brady’s partners are Casey Prentice and Kevin Costello.

The developers argued that they were seeking a zoning change that was part of the Eastern Waterfront Master Plan adopted by the council in 2004 after an extensive public process. Brady told the council that CPB2 decided to purchase the land only after several meetings with city staff and a thorough review of the waterfront plan, which calls for a mixed-use development that includes residences, hotels, restaurants and retail uses.

Although CPB2 has not submitted development plans, Costello said in December that the group hoped to save nine of the 12 or so existing brick building on the site. In addition to a Faneuil Hall-type marketplace, the group envisions places for artists and craftsmen to make and sell their wares, he said.

Deb Andrews, the city’s historic preservation manager, said she is confident that historic buildings can be preserved in a way that maintains the economic viability of the project. She pointed to previous historic rehabilitation projects Brady has been involved with, including The Press Hotel, Hilton Garden Inn and the W.L. Blake building.

The developers are also looking to build townhouses on Fore Street. As a compromise with neighbors, they agreed to limit heights to 35 feet, which is shorter than existing houses nearby. They also agreed to a prohibition of restaurants and bars on Fore Street, in response to concerns about noise and traffic.

The Soul of Portland claims that a previous council, in 2004, sought to protect the harbor view by requiring heights to be measured from the flood plain – which would preclude any development on Fore Street. The group researched old meeting footage, posting clips of discussions by councilors that seem to support that claim.

But Nathan Smith, who was mayor in 2004 and is now working with the developer, told the council that is not true. City staff, including the city attorney, argue that the original proposal was never formally amended to adopt that standard.

Councilors David Marshall and Kevin Donoghue opposed the zone change, at least partly because the city records were unclear about whether the heights should be measured.

Shortly after the council vote, Brady said he was “very excited” the council adopted the zoning recommendation put forward by the Planning Board with only one change.

The council voted 5-4 to make the development subject to any future zoning ordinance that would require a certain percentage of residential units in large developments to be affordable to middle-income families. Brady said that change would not likely affect the development, because development plans will not be submitted for several months and there is no guarantee the policy will be adopted by the council.


Correction: This story was updated at 11:16 a.m., June 3, 2015, to state the correct deadline for the Soul of Portland to deliver petitions to City Hall. The deadline is Aug. 14. A previous version of this story had an incorrect date.


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