Portland is launching a new effort to plan and create a public open space on nearly 11 acres near the entrance to Portland Harbor.

This time, the city is receiving pro bono assistance from a team led by Richard “Dick” Barringer, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service who specializes in sustainable economic development.

Barringer said he approached City Manager Jon Jennings about creating a plan for the land between the Maine State Pier and the former Portland Co. complex after the city announced plans to convert unused pavement there into temporary parking. The area had been used for vehicles lining up to board a defunct ferry service to Nova Scotia.

“I know from my experience in government that temporary has a way of becoming permanent unless somebody does something about that,” Barringer said. “I think it’s the single most valuable piece of property in the city and it’s probably the second most valuable piece of property in the state, after Mount Katahdin. And the idea of having it waiting around for a developer to make a really fancy proposal to the city to do something with it just rankles me. I just think it’s so valuable to the public. ”

This rendering shows a proposed public pavilion near the foot of Franklin Street. City of Portland

The “Platform of a New Portland Harbor Common” calls for the area to remain publicly accessible open space for Portland residents and visitors. It includes a public pavilion for events and a transportation hub for public buses along Commercial Street, near the Maine State Pier, and a series of event lawns, plazas, a playground and native coastal gardens on roughly 10 acres between the pier and the Portland Foreside development.

It also calls for a new pier at the end of India Street and adding green space at Compass Park on the Maine State Pier.

It also includes a new traffic roundabout at the intersection of Franklin and Commercial streets.

The plan was drafted and presented to the City Council’s Housing and Economic Development Committee last week by Barringer, whose team includes Patrick Costin of Canal 5 Studio, Michael Boucher and Amy Magida of Michael Boucher Landscape Architecture, and Barry Sheff of Woodard & Curran.

The team and city officials stressed the need for public outreach and input before finalizing any plans.

Barringer told councilors that the city has a “once in a century opportunity” to create a world class open space for the public, likening it to the creation of Baxter Boulevard.

“We see this as the best single opportunity to protect from future development the last remaining stretch of publicly owned land along the waterfront,” Barringer said. 

City officials have tried for years to coalesce around a long-term plan for the Maine State Pier and surrounding public land, extending to the private redevelopment of the former Portland Co.

After kickstarting the conversation in 2016, City Manager Jon Jennings released a plan to create the Portland Landing on a 1.5 acre parking lot, known as the Amethyst Lot at a cost of $16 million. Plans called for expanding Moon Tide Park, which sits between the Ocean Gateway Terminal and the waterfront, and building a triangular pier.

The center of the park would have included an event space and promenade along the water, and large oversized steps leading down to the water. A community building for SailMaine and a sailing dock would have been in the center of the space. And a more wild green space would have spanned the northern edge.

That plan, however, failed to gain traction because of the high hosts. But last summer, the city converted the area into a scaled-down public space, with green space, swing benches and a plaza for events and food trucks. Officials said the design could be incorporated into a more ambitious public park.

City officials have also considered converting the Portland Ocean Terminal on the Maine State Pier into retail and office spaces, and building a boardwalk connecting the pier to the Ocean Gateway terminal so street vendors could have better access to cruise-ship passengers – an industry hit particularly hard during the pandemic. But so far, none of that has come to fruition.

Barringer said he approached Jennings about taking on the planning project, pro bono, after the ferry service left Portland in 2019 and the city began using the queueing area as temporary public parking. He said the plans were originally going to be presented last year, but were delayed because of the pandemic.

There are no cost estimates for the project, but Barringer said his team would work with the city staff to come up with a phased implementation and come back to the committee.

Barringer said Tuesday that he would like to present the first phase this spring or early summer. The team may recommend installing a lawn area between the Maine State Pier and the Ocean Gateway Terminal, so researchers and city officials could observe how it’s used by the public and conduct outreach to neighbors and other interested parties before finalizing a more formal plan.

Barringer said he envisions a robust public planning process, including outreach to neighborhood organizations representing India Street, Munjoy Hill and Friends of the Eastern Promenade, as well as area business, condominiums and tenants at Munjoy South. Other stakeholders would include island residents, tenants at the Maine State Pier, SailMaine and the Narrow Gauge railroad.

“I would see a pretty sophisticated public involvement process that might even involve a couple of charrettes in which we invite people to exchange ideas and share with us their hopes and aspirations for this piece of property,” Barringer said. 

While costs have been an impediment, Barringer told councilors last week he’s optimistic that funding could be secured from both public and private sources, including developers and corporate property owners who have built new facilities nearby. He said possible public funding sources include America’s Great Outdoors Act and the National Park Service’s Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Grants.

Casey Prentice, a principal with the Portland Foreside Development group, said he has been speaking with the city about forming a public-private partnership to create a public open space on the land. He’s encouraged by the more “modest and pragmatic” approach taken by Barringer and by plans to conduct extensive public outreach.

“Overall, we’re excited to see the public process rollout and get a little community engagement, which we felt was pretty lacking in the first plan,” Prentice said. “It’s a huge opportunity for the city – 11 acres on the waterfront – to green that space up and use it for anything besides a public parking lot is an amazing opportunity.”

City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who leads the committee, said he is encouraged that having publicly accessible green space has been a common theme in all of the recent proposals. He said the pandemic has shown the importance of having outdoor recreational opportunities near every neighborhood.

“It seems like there’s a lot of momentum around making a pretty significant green space between Maine State Pier and including the Amethyst Lot, which I think is pretty interesting and compelling,” Thibodeau said. “That would basically one up the waterfront for the public forever.

“The way I see it, there are going to be some unique opportunities over the next three to five years for making a decision like this, as we get past the pandemic,” he said. “I think we all recognize over the last year how important it is to invest in these spaces.”

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