Take Portland’s tallest building, Franklin Towers on Cumberland Avenue. Replicate it 16 times, creating a monolith that extends half a mile to Forest Avenue. That’s the volume of shipping containers a warehouse proposed for Portland’s waterfront could store every year.

Yet in violation of zoning crafted to ensure a working waterfront, most of that freight would have no maritime connection. Instead, the city’s western waterfront would metastasize into a New England truck terminus.

Last year, maritime containers requiring local cold storage would have filled half of one of those 16 Franklin Towers. Even a decade from now, based on our calculations using Maine Port Authority’s optimistic projections, only 40 percent of the warehouse freight would arrive or leave by ship. Reasonable people are upset.

We can trace this community conflict to 2014, a year after the Icelandic company Eimskip began service to Portland. At that point, the Port Authority spent $7.2 million to increase the International Marine Terminal’s acreage and, without market analysis, invited proposals for a “northern New England refrigerated logistics facility.”

A local consortium designed a 1-acre maritime warehouse and a larger warehouse off-site.

Americold Logistics proposed a much taller, 3-acre warehouse to “easily accommodate all food and beverage imports for the New England region.” That’s a market area 400 percent larger than the Port Authority specified. Americold also stated that it might shift all its trucked cold-storage freight from an aging warehouse near Morrill’s Corner to the maritime facility.

The Port Authority selected Americold without probing the inflated market size or the likely zoning violation. Later, when Americold announced the warehouse needed to be 60 percent higher than the 45-foot zoning limit, Portland’s Economic Development Department shouldered all the work to win a zoning change. City staff did not require Americold to document storage demand, nor did it commission independent analysis until April – after six months of public pressure.

The project’s site abuts the Fore River’s deep-water channel. To ensure the land is used wisely, Portland requires development to be “dependent upon deep water” and “contribute to port activity.” Yet data so far points to a warehouse that will store mostly trucked freight.

Undaunted, and anxious for a showpiece facility, the Port Authority has exaggerated the need for maritime cold storage.

“Most of the seafood that Eimskip delivers to Portland is now shipped to cold-storage warehouses in Massachusetts,” Executive Director John Henshaw said at a January Portland Planning Board hearing. “A cold-storage warehouse on the Portland waterfront would keep that seafood here and allow Portland companies to process, package and distribute it.”

His prediction of a market-share surge is wishful thinking. We recently looked at three months of Eimskip’s cold-storage imports. Nearly 40 percent went to a single processor that uses private warehouses in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Another 40 percent went to other companies outside Maine. With significant infrastructure and workforce investments already at their current locations, they will not be drawn here by a new warehouse.

Henshaw said customers will include food producers and wholesalers, blueberry and lobster processors, and pharmaceutical companies: “Without cold-storage capacity, companies in these industries find it difficult to compete on a national and international scale.”

But blueberry processors and pharmaceutical companies would continue to use mostly private cold storage. A waterfront location would be immaterial for many other companies, and the warehouse would provide scant benefit for Maine companies targeting national and international opportunities.

For on-site storage of international exports leaving by ship, companies would save $7.50 per 30-cubic-foot pallet, compared with storage 3 miles away, according to the Port Authority: a third of a penny per pound of lobster.

Portland needs modern cold storage, but not on this scale. Wilmington, North Carolina, the 18th largest U.S. container port, recently opened a 3 million-cubic-foot cold-storage warehouse. Huge, yes, but smaller than Americold’s proposed warehouse and less than 45 feet high.

Rather than blunder into a development that would scar Portland like the destruction of Union Station a half-century ago, we need a fair and legal solution. One option acknowledges freight will move primarily by truck for many years: Develop a warehouse off the waterfront.

If Eimskip’s shipping volume grows by 350 percent within a decade, as it predicts, a maritime warehouse would gain traction. Market growth would allow the first warehouse to transition to exclusively trucked freight. And by then, the Port Authority may have data it now lacks to justify a warehouse taller than zoning allows.


Correction: This story was updated at 5:25 p.m. on May 12 to correct the size of a Wilmington, North Carolina, cold-storage warehouse.