Nearly a decade ago, the Maine State Pier was the center of a battle royal between two redevelopment proposals from well-known politicians and real estate developers that divided the city of Portland.

Despite months of debate, neither project – each estimated to cost $90 million – moved forward.

Since then, the city has entertained smaller proposals to use portions of the Portland Ocean Terminal, the long, blue shed on the pier that is adorned with painted whales and was once a city transit shed. But the last two projects proposed for the property have imploded.

Now the City Council is kicking off a community conversation about the future of the pier and the terminal building, trying to generate revenue from an asset that has failed to move forward. The city’s Economic Development Committee has set a Feb. 11 date to get the process underway.

The 7-acre Maine State Pier includes the blue Portland Ocean Terminal building, seen from above at right. At upper left are the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal and garage.

The 7-acre Maine State Pier includes the blue Portland Ocean Terminal building, seen from above at right. At upper left are the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal and garage.

“It’s not just about the Portland Ocean Terminal building,” said City Manager Jon Jennings. “For me, it’s a very exciting opportunity for us. What we’re talking about today will have a huge impact years from now.”

Jennings said a planning effort would focus on long- and short-term uses that could generate revenue for the city. For example, he would like to lease the vacant second-floor office space while the council conducts its planning.

“I would love to see us derive revenue from that,” Jennings said. “It’s a dynamic space on the waterfront and it’s right in the heart of what’s happening in the city.”

Officials say several factors make the timing right to take another look at the Maine State Pier:

• The former Portland Co. industrial complex, consisting of about 10 acres on the Eastern Waterfront, is being examined for redevelopment into a mixed-use neighborhood. Several other developments either have been approved or are under consideration nearby, such as an upscale hotel at 158 Fore St., an office building at 16 Middle St. and a condo building at 185 Fore St.

• The state pier has become a popular outdoor concert venue. Promoter Waterfront Concerts put on 27 shows at the pier last year and is now working on this year’s lineup. The promoter is working with city staff on a preliminary plan to possibly cover the pier to reduce noise.

• Jennings said there have been internal discussions among city staffers about transforming a waterfront parking lot, known as the Amethyst Lot, into a public open space. The city also owns two large parking lots – a dirt lot on Thames Street and a paved waterfront lot just east of the Ocean Gateway terminal, which is used by cruise ships.

“We can’t look at the (Portland Ocean Terminal) in isolation,” said City Councilor David Brenerman, who leads the council’s Economic Development Committee, which will spearhead the reuse process. “The ocean terminal is just one (of the properties) we’re anxious to figure out how to reuse, but everything is connected.”

Mayor Ethan Strimling, who announced the planning initiative Monday as a common council goal during his State of the City address, said the area is too valuable to be sitting idle and that all options will be on the table.

“There were no limitations the council put forward,” Strimling said. “It really is for the committee to take a hard look at where we want to go so we’re proactive and not reactive.”

The Portland Ocean Terminal building, with its whale mural painted by the artist Wyland nearly 23 years ago, has 90,000 square feet of ground-floor space and an additional 30,000 square feet on the second floor.

The Portland Ocean Terminal building, with its whale mural painted by the artist Wyland nearly 23 years ago, has 90,000 square feet of ground-floor space and an additional 30,000 square feet on the second floor.

ROCKY PAST FOR PROPOSED USES

The Portland Ocean Terminal sits on the 7-acre state pier. The building has 90,000 square feet of ground-floor space and an additional 30,000 square feet on a second floor.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones agrees with Strimling’s desire to be proactive about adopting a common vision for the building. The goal is to get community support and avoid another divisive debate like the one in 2007.

“I go back to the proposals from Ocean Properties and Olympia” in 2007, Mavodones said. “Although I did support developing the pier at that time, I think we’d be in a better position if we weren’t reacting to a proposal and were more clear about what we are thinking about as a city and as a council.”

The last time the city discussed redeveloping the state pier it drew intense public interest and divided the council.

In 2007, two real estate companies submitted grand plans for the pier. Both proposals included a hotel, restaurants and public access, and both teams were seeking long-term leases for the pier and tax breaks to make their $90 million plans come to fruition.

Ocean Properties Ltd. proposed a 175-room hotel, an office building, a public market, a 300-car parking garage and other commercial uses on the pier. The proposal included a harbor walkway, rooftop garden, shops and restaurants. The New Hampshire-based company was led by Bangor native Tom Walsh, Robert Baldacci – the brother of former Gov. John Baldacci – and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

The Olympia Cos. proposed a commercial village, with a 175-room hotel, four-story office building and a 2-acre park on the pier, but would have leased parking spaces at existing garages. The Portland-based company was led by Kevin Mahaney. The project also included marine berthing, a museum and a network of shops, restaurants and artist studios.

The process became increasingly contentious, especially after the city allowed Ocean Properties to modify its proposal to include a cruise ship “megaberth,” prompting suspicion the move was made because of the company’s political connections.

A divided council ultimately voted 5-3 to choose Olympia to redevelop the pier. However, negotiations quickly broke down, in part because of concerns about who owned the submerged lands beneath the pier, which factored into financing. Shortly thereafter, the council began negotiating with Ocean Properties, but those talks ultimately dissolved over concerns about the costs of rehabilitating the pier amid other projects the company already had underway.

Crowds gather on the Maine State Pier last May for a Pat Benatar concert. The pier hosted 27 shows last year and the promoter is now working on this year’s lineup, along with looking into covering the pier to reduce noise.

Crowds gather on the Maine State Pier last May for a Pat Benatar concert. The pier hosted 27 shows last year and the promoter is now working on this year’s lineup, along with looking into covering the pier to reduce noise.

TENANCIES RAN INTO TROUBLES

After the dust had settled, the council in late 2009 approved leasing 10,000 square feet on the pier and berthing space to Ready Seafood that was later increased to 24,000 square feet. In 2013, councilors approved a lease with Shucks Maine Lobster for 18,800 square feet of space. Combined, the leases were expected to generate roughly $450,000 a year.

Shucks had planned to open a processing facility and a commercial demonstration kitchen that would have targeted tourists interested in seeing lobster off-loaded at the docks, processed, and dishes prepared by an experienced chef. But Shucks CEO John Hathaway said the company pulled out of the project because the city changed the Shucks lease to provide more space for a tugboat operator.

“It’s very difficult to deal with a piece of property when the city is the landlord,” Hathaway said, noting that the company is still looking for space in the Portland area. “It was very disappointing for me because I had a vision for that location that I thought both the people and visitors to Portland would really like.”

Portland Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said the Shucks project didn’t go forward because of costs, not the lease changes.

The next year, a marine-related business incubator called the New England Ocean Cluster announced that it was looking for a home on the Portland waterfront, but was unable to come to an agreement with the city to lease space at the pier.

Patrick Arnold, majority owner in the New England Ocean Cluster, said the cluster is looking at two other sites on the Portland waterfront, but declined to name them. He said the final decision depends on whether his group of investors, along with the University of Southern Maine and the University of New England, are successful in winning a $7 million state bond.

Councilor Brenerman said the committee will begin the process of considering new uses of the property, and ways to address existing traffic issues where Franklin Street terminates at Commercial Street. That area is congested with people accessing the Casco Bay Lines ferry and Ocean Gateway Terminal cruise ships, and there is a lack of parking.

Brenerman expects the committee will have some sort of recommendation – whether for short-term or long-term goals – by the end of the year.

“I think we’ll make great progress in the next 10 months,” he said.

 


Comments are not available on this story.