SOUTH PORTLAND — Most of the working piers on Portland’s waterfront are privately owned, and this brings challenges to the city.

The public owns Ocean Gateway Terminal, the Maine State Pier-Casco Bay Ferry Terminal, the Portland Fish Pier and the Marine Terminal with the Eimskip container port. Public ownership should not be a problem if city leaders are careful with the management of these resource-based piers, which require wise stewardship. It is their job to guard the public trust by maintaining access to the sea for commerce, navigation and the harvesting of products from the ocean.

Private piers that lack active public-private stewardship, however, are subject to changing market pressures, and, in Portland, are rapidly succumbing to upscale, nonmarine development that is pricing and crowding out the fishing industry and related businesses. Permanent structures such as condominiums, parking garages, office buildings and hotels lock out present and future resource-based needs.

A deep-water seaport city can never foresee what important, even critical, uses that its piers may serve in the future. Known uses include visiting military vessels; during World War II, Portland Harbor hosted a huge military presence (after the war, in 1949, the aircraft carrier USS Sicily docked at the Maine State Pier). Other necessary uses include sea-products landing and handling, research, transportation, the import and export of bulk cargo and other kinds of interstate and international commerce.

A seaport city must protect waterfront land, and sometimes leave it idle as it awaits new marine development that will respond to new needs. Our harbor is uniquely located at the hub of all forms of transportation – sea, air, rail and highway – and, thus, is open to many opportunities, known and unknown.

Portlanders in 1987 understood this, and voted overwhelmingly to protect the working waterfront from threatening nonmarine uses. They were alarmed by the sweep of condo and office buildings that were gobbling up the central waterfront. As a result of that nonmarine takeover, what was once the most successful working waterfront pier is today a condo pier, and the city is presently reviewing the first zone change application for a hotel and parking garage there. Among other harms, such a development will further exacerbate the near-standstill traffic congestion on Commercial Street – the street that is as important to the conduct of marine industry as the industry’s access to the water is.

Unfortunately, rather than public-private collaboration to ensure the sustainability of the private piers by using marketing programs to attract marine tenants, developing public-private pier maintenance projects or providing tax relief, for example, City Hall repeatedly surrendered to pressures from pier owners to loosen the zoning to allow more and more nonmarine development.

But while this upscale, nonmarine fever swept the central and eastern waterfronts, Portland officials did not loosen the 1987 zoning on the less-pressured western waterfront. Eventually, the city worked with the state to pave the way for the impressive Eimskip international container port that is developing there, including plans for a state-of-the-art cold-storage facility that will be a boon to Maine producers, giving proof to the wisdom of giving the waterfront time to fulfill its promise. Boat overhaul, marine construction and a busy cargo port fill out the rest of the western waterfront.

Now, the city of Portland is finally doing the right thing on the central waterfront. Plans for the Maine State Pier are no longer centered on permanent hotels and other upscale amenities, but rather on developing a public seafood market and possibly a marine incubator. City officials want to attract more water-related industry there and to provide a marketplace for new and existing sea-based businesses. Unlike hotels and office buildings, it will be flexible space and thus available for future needs. That is good stewardship of a finite public resource.

This plan, if adopted, will also signal that the city is committed to maintaining that crucial east anchor to the threatened central working waterfront on this last bit of available public property there. Another piece of great waterfront news would be the city-state purchase of one or more privately owned piers and the provision of small-boat berthing at the Portland Fish Pier.

But, now, we celebrate the city’s plan to do the right thing at the Maine State Pier. Hotels, condos, office buildings, restaurants and retail businesses can be successful on the other side of the street.