Developers are moving forward with a proposal to build Portland’s first hotel on a wharf extending into Portland Harbor – a proposal that’s touching off another debate about the future of the city’s working waterfront.

David Bateman and his Fisherman’s Wharf LLC is looking to build a 93-room hotel and parking garage with office, retail and restaurant space at 184 Commercial St. The 1.9 acre lot sits at the northwest end of Fisherman’s Wharf and is now home to a parking lot and the Portland Lobster Co., a restaurant that has outdoor dining and music during the summer.

Fisherman’s Wharf hotel site plan. Artist's rendering courtesy of Archetype PA of Portland

Bateman needs the city’s approval to rezone the property, which is located in the Waterfront Central Zone – an area where the city’s development rules have sought to protect water-dependent uses, such as commercial fishing.

The Planning Board will hold a workshop discussion Tuesday about the conditional rezoning request, which is needed to allow the hotel, increase the allowable building height and reduce the setback from the high tide mark from 25 feet to 12.5 feet. The current building height limit is 50 feet, and the developer has not disclosed the height of the structures it hopes to build.

Renderings unveiled in February of 2017 show a five-story brick and metal-sided hotel with a restaurant/lounge on the top floor. The development would include offices, retail, a marine dispatch center and a 500-vehicle parking garage. Other mixed-use buildings could be built along the water in future phases.

Architect David Lloyd said original renderings are now obsolete, and new ones are not yet available because developers are currently only seeking zoning approval. Lloyd did provide a few artist renderings showing the proposed boardwalk and one that shows a small portion of the proposed hotel obscured by a tree. An updated site plan indicates a rooftop pool and deck are also being considered for the hotel.

Bateman did not return a phone message Monday seeking comment on the proposal.

CITY COUNCIL WILL DECIDE ZONING

The Planning Board is not scheduled to take any action Tuesday, but the board ultimately will make a recommendation to the City Council, which has the final say on zoning changes. If the request is granted, Bateman would still need to apply for and obtain site plan approval before construction could begin.

The proposal comes amid high tensions about the rapid pace of development in the city, and it is already sparking opposition from commercial fishermen, as well as from residents of the neighboring Chandler’s Wharf condominium complex. Chandler’s Wharf was built in the 1980s at the southeastern end of Fisherman’s Wharf and sparked a successful citywide referendum effort to increase protections for water-dependent uses such as lobstering and commercial ground fishing. Those zoning protections have been relaxed over the years since the referendum, opening the door to other commercial uses.

Opponents of the hotel proposal say they are concerned about increased traffic and a loss of Portland’s working waterfront.

“After Chandler’s Wharf was built, it was realized to be a mistake,” Ross Lane, a former commercial fisherman and water taxi operator, said in an email to planners. “I am a resident of Chandler’s Wharf. Even though I live here, I view this development as a mistake and would prefer it had never been built and the property had stayed as the working wharf it was.”

Last summer, a group of 90 lobstermen, fishermen and waterfront businesses sent a letter to city planners expressing concern not only about the Fisherman’s Wharf project, but also about an approved redevelopment plan for a parking lot at Union Wharf and the planned redevelopment of the former Rufus Deering Lumber site, on the opposite side of Commercial Street, into hotels and condos. They asked the city to prohibit all offices, condos and hotels on the wharf side of Commercial Street as a way to protect the city’s lobster and ground-fishing economy, which they valued at $150 million a year. The waterfront also ships an estimated $141 million worth of bait a year, they said.

That letter prompted 19 area business people to respond in support of the Fisherman’s Wharf proposal. A group named The Merchants, Purveyors and Maritime Businesses of Portland, Maine, which includes water transportation companies as well as restaurants such as Gritty McDuff’s and Elevation Burger, took issue with the requested development prohibitions on the wharf side of Commercial Street.

“Such an unreasonably inflexible and absolute statement has no place whatsoever in the planning process,” the group said.

The group said that the planned development would provide needed revenues to pay for wharf improvements, while creating a publicly accessible boardwalk on the east side of the hotel. It also noted that taxis and scenic boat rides are water-dependent uses allowed in the Waterfront Central Zone, which spans from the Maine State Pier to the International Marine Terminal near the Casco Bay Bridge.

That zoning currently allows the construction of new buildings for non-marine uses within 150 feet of Commercial Street, but the rules are silent about hotels, according to Bill Needelman, the city’s waterfront coordinator.

CONCERNS ABOUT FUTURE HOTELS

According to written comments included in the Planning Board’s meeting materials, opponents are worried that hotel development would lead to similar proposals at other wharves. Steve DiMillio, who manages DiMillo’s Restaurant, said his family one day would like to redevelop its surface parking lot at Long Wharf.

While the merchant group says that no fishermen would be displaced by the development, attorneys representing the owners of neighboring Widgery Wharf expressed concern that it would negatively impact its commercial fishermen, who are provided with areas to store their traps and gear, as well as small workshops and vessel berthing.

“Uses such as Widgery Wharf, Inc.’s are provided high priority protection as they are intrinsically connected to the history, character, and beauty of Portland’s working waterfront,” attorney Thomas Leahy wrote. “Allowing for the conditional rezoning for a particular use that is detrimental to such high priority marine-related uses is antithetical to a primary objective of the (zone).”

Chandler’s Wharf resident Paul LaFavore worried that approving the development could lead down a slippery slope that could leave Portland’s waterfront looking more like Boston’s, where public water views are scarce.

“Over the decades, Atlantic Avenue (in Boston) has completely blocked water views by developing multi-story building after building along the waterfront side of the street,” LaFavore said. “The only areas on the street that are visited by tourists are the small open area(s) with preserved water views such as Columbus Park and the New England Aquarium.”

Chander’s Wharf resident Adriano de Cardenas suggested there are more appropriate locations for a hotel.

“You can have housing and hotels away from the waterfront but you cannot have maritime businesses like marinas, fishing, lobstering, Coast Guard and the businesses that support them not on the waterfront,” he said.

There have been a number of past efforts to build a hotel directly on the waterfront.

A hotel was proposed as part of the controversial and unsuccessful effort to redevelop the city-owned Maine State Pier in 2007, but the plan was dropped. Four years later, developer Eric Cianchette sold Maine Wharf at 68 Commercial St., after he was unable to build a 100-room hotel in the Waterfront Central Zone.

Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

filed under: