A Portland developer hopes to use recycled and renovated shipping containers to create retail space along Washington Avenue on the city’s East End.

Jed Harris, of Cotton Street Holdings LLC, has filed site plan and change-of-use applications to install six metal shipping containers, each 40 feet long, 8 feet wide and nearly 10 feet tall, side by side at the corner of Washington Avenue and Marrion Street.

The site, which sits between East Bayside and Munjoy Hill, used to be the location of a single-family home that was recently demolished.

The end product would be five, for-rent retail spaces, each measuring 320 square feet. The project cost? Only about $150,000.

Harris plans to offer monthly leases as a startup space for new retailers. He said two of the spaces have commitments, but he would not provide additional details.

Although the proposal is the first of its kind in Portland, inexpensive recycled shipping containers have increasingly been used in commercial and residential construction elsewhere.


“We think it’s a creative and funky thing,” said Harris, who has seen similar projects throughout the United States. “I thought it would be a great addition to bring in some creative retail.”

As a Level II site plan, the proposal will be reviewed by city planning staff, but not the Planning Board. However, the city has posted the proposal on its website, sent notices to abutters and welcomes public feedback, said Jeff Levine, the city’s planning and urban development director. He said the review will ensure that the containers comply with modern building codes.

“The notice just went out, so we’re curious to hear what people think,” Levine said. “I think there’s some really interesting things happening on Washington Avenue. It’s exciting to see the interest over there.”

If approved, it would be the first for-lease commercial space made of shipping containers in Portland, but also part of a growing trend of container reuse in Maine and nationwide. The containers are built to hold dry cargo and be carried around the world by ships, trains and trucks. There are plenty of lightly used shipping containers available in the resale market for less than $2,000 each.

Re-purposed shipping containers made their debut in Portland in 2013 when one was used as temporary gallery space in Congress Square Park. A similar display has been proposed for this fall.

In 2013, a barge carrying a four-story structure made of 63 shipping containers arrived in Portland Harbor to be turned into a high-tech showroom for Google. The so-called Google barge left in 2014 and was later scrapped.


This summer, Waterfront Concerts is using nearly a dozen modified shipping containers as a VIP area and artist green rooms at the Maine State Pier in Portland. Modified containers also are used at Thompson’s Point, which hosts summer concerts and events.

The Icelandic shipping company Eimskip, which carries containers full of cargo between Maine and Iceland, uses shipping containers as year-round office space at the International Marine Terminal on the western waterfront.

Reusing old shipping containers as housing, office and retail space is a global trend. Surplus containers have been converted into small bars in Boston’s South End, while in London, dozens of shipping containers have been connected and stacked to create the Boxpark shopping mall.

In the Down East town of Ellsworth, one couple is living in two shipping containers.

Harris said the Brewer-based SnapSpace Solutions is lined up to convert the containers. The company would insulate each container and add glass storefronts facing Washington Avenue, he said. The interiors would have wooden floors and painted sheetrock walls and recessed lighting. Five of the containers would be used for retail spaces, and the sixth would house restrooms, storage and mechanical systems, he said.

SnapSpace Solutions President Chad Walton said business has really taken off in the past three years or so. The company built the containers used at the Maine State Pier and Eimskip. It also stacked containers lengthwise to create a communications tower for Cianbro in Pittsfield, and converted one container into a houseboat in Belfast with radiant floor heat, granite countertops and a stone fireplace.


“It’s definitely growing,” Walton said.

The application to the city describes the containers as “quasi-permanent.” Harris, who also owns the former J.J. Nissen building and Maine Department of Corrections buildings on Washington Avenue, said 93 Washington Ave. and the DOC’s adult probation and parole office may be redeveloped in the distant future, either by himself or another developer.

“We think this is an interim placeholder that we feel will be positive for the neighborhood,” he said.

Harris hopes to have the containers installed on a concrete pad and open for business this fall.

Although a retail use would be replacing housing, Levine said the plan does not trigger the Housing Replacement Ordinance, which requires developers to replace lost housing or pay into a special city fund. That ordinance only applies to buildings with three or more units, or any housing removed to create a parking lot, he said.


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