A developer hopes to draw new retail businesses to Canal Plaza in downtown Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Canal Plaza, a little-frequented open space girded by large office buildings in downtown Portland, is getting an upgrade designed to bring in retailers and ultimately more foot traffic.

Tim Soley, founder and president of East Brown Cow Management, said he’s been looking for a way to revitalize the complex at Middle and Union streets since his real estate firm bought it in 2009.

He noticed that people “would walk around, rather than through” the 17,000-square-foot outdoor space and felt that needed to change.

“Ever since then, I’ve been looking for a way to integrate it in a better way,” Soley said. His goal has been to make Canal Plaza “a place where people spend time, not just to work and not just to go to the restaurants and bars (elsewhere) later on.”

He’s been making improvements over the years, but the newest change may be the largest – introducing retail space to a site that primarily houses banks and law firms.

East Brown Cow is beginning a $10 million overhaul of 1 Canal Plaza, a 10-story building whose flagship tenant is KeyBank. Soley said the bank is consolidating its quarters in the building, which frees up room for the project. Plans call for 24,000 square feet of glass-fronted retail space on the ground floor, new windows, new elevators, a “grand staircase” and a redesigned lobby. Next door, 2 Canal Plaza will get a similar treatment, and there will be touch-ups outside as well.


Soley estimates the entire project will cost about $15 million. He’s hired a Boston-based architect, Moshe Safdie, who has designed prominent buildings in the U.S., Middle East and Asia, to come up with a blueprint for the new space.

The work is expected to be done by early 2024. Meanwhile, new business is already on its way to another part of the plaza. Taco A Go Go, a California-style taco restaurant, plans to open by summer at Zero Canal Plaza. The one-story, oval-shaped building previously was the site of a vegan eatery, the Copper Branch, which closed last fall.

Soley built the 1,500-square-foot kiosk on the open space in 2017 as part of a $5 million upgrade. Previously, much of the space was obscured by a grove of tall trees in concrete planters.

At the time, he called the area “dead space,” and said, “I think this is something that has been waiting to happen for a very long time.”

Soley, a longtime developer in Portland, has proposed other changes nearby. In 2019, for example, he floated the idea of constructing a 20- to 25-story office tower on a lot tucked behind Canal Plaza.

The plaza was created by the construction of three office structures in the 1970s, including the headquarters of Canal Bank. For much of the previous century, the area had been the site of the Falmouth Hotel, a luxurious six-story building that opened two years after Portland’s Great Fire of 1866. The hotel was demolished in 1963, as Portland underwent a period of so-called urban renewal that included the razing of historic Union Station.


Joe Malone, the commercial real estate broker marketing the new retail site, said he’s eager to see the changes ahead.

“We’re trying to reactivate it all,” he said. “It will be nice to bring some activity to the plaza.”

Malone said Canal Plaza is well situated where the Old Port and the city’s financial district meets the Old Port.

The head of Portland Downtown, a nonprofit working to revitalize the city’s core, said he is also eager to see what’s possible with a re-energized plaza.

“We’re excited about this development from East Brown Cow,” Executive Director Cary Tyson said. “Canal Plaza is a prime spot and the fact that Moshe Safdie is designing the space is thrilling.”

The effort goes hand-in-hand with other projects the organization is taking on to bring more activity downtown.

A rendering shows what the renovated Canal Plaza might look like, with retail storefronts drawing foot traffic. Courtesy/East Brown Cow

“We really love to see the programming and activation of open spaces such as Canal Plaza,” Tyson said. “We’re again programming (activities on) Milk Street and this year we’re taking on the programming of Dana Street as well as trying to enhance the offerings in Monument Square. This will be a great complement to all of that work.”

Soley said those activities also fit well with his plans, adding, “We want to create a public space that people want to come into.”

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