One of the most important development and historic preservation decisions of this new century will soon come before the Portland City Council.

All parties agree that the Portland Co. complex at 58 Fore St. is worthy of historic district designation, but a few important elements remain to be decided. With a little bit of collaboration and creativity, a win-win opportunity exists to promote economic development and preserve our cherished sense of place.

The complex, a 9.93-acre waterfront site, is a gateway property that tells an important part of American, state and local history. The property is now owned by CPB2 LLC, which intends to build a mixed-use development and rehabilitate several of the historic buildings.

Beginning in 1847, on this very spot, steam engines of all kinds were designed, components produced and the final products constructed in an assembly line fashion that predated Henry Ford’s! It took a massive site and many stages to produce these steam engines that powered the American Industrial Revolution.

Portland is incredibly lucky to have all stages of this industrial process represented by the buildings that are still standing. The unique alleyways created by the buildings’ relationships to each other, the historic yard and entryway all tell the story of how hundreds of metal products were produced from start to finish.

The Maine Historic Preservation Commission states that the Portland Co. “drove the economic growth of Maine.” Most importantly, it is the only intact site of this kind in the nation!

Because it was determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, the Portland Historic Preservation Board initiated a review of the property. They held three workshops, two site visits and a public hearing, producing several hundred pages of analysis.

Ultimately, the Historic Preservation Board recommended to the city Planning Board that 4.3 acres and eight buildings that are structurally intact (determined by two independent analyses), as well as the other unique features of the industrial site, be designated a local historic district and preserved.

At the Planning Board’s public hearing, CPB2 unexpectedly offered a new proposal, which includes the total destruction of the 1918 Erecting Shop in order to create a 50-foot-wide public easement across the property. The Erecting Shop, considered a significant structure by the Historic Preservation Board, is the entrance building for the flower show and other large exhibits.

Without much discussion or opportunity for public input or consideration by the Historic Preservation Board, the Planning Board accepted CPB2’s proposal. This new plan not only eliminates the Erecting Shop, but also significantly reduces the district’s boundaries and isolates the 1895 Pattern Storehouse. The Pattern Storehouse has the iconic Portland Co. sign one sees from the waterfront trail or Fore Street.

The bottom line is that countless city staff, outside expert consultants, volunteer officials and committed residents have spent over 18 months researching and analyzing the data and carefully considering the pros/cons and consequences of multiple options. The final decision by the City Council also deserves this level of thoughtfulness.

The impending council decision is being framed as choosing between public access and preservation of the Erecting Shop and assembly yard. However, the 2002 Eastern Waterfront Master Plan, used for guidance in the Planning Board’s decision, encourages “historic preservation and adaptive reuse of historic structures” as well as “preserving public access to the waterfront.”

The plan further states, “The principles and objectives here are of equal value and should be applied uniformly during the evaluation of proposed land use policies and development for the Eastern Waterfront.”

Therefore, these two goals – public access to the waterfront and adaptive reuse of historic structures – are not mutually exclusive. Both can be accomplished in the process of redeveloping this extraordinary site.

Here in Portland we know all too well that once a historic building is demolished and a landmark site greatly diminished, there is no turning back and we all lose another irreplaceable piece of our heritage. Given the lasting impact their decision will have on this site and our city, we urge council members to hold a public workshop before taking a final vote so that the council and citizens can fully understand all the dimensions of this issue.

We have before us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the full historic importance of this site, ensure quality public access to the waterfront and support a vibrant Portland economy. Let’s seize this moment and do what’s right for Portland – not just for today, but for the ages!