This evening Portland’s Planning Board met for three hours in a second workshop to consider a request by the City of Portland to permit the construction of a 70 ft. cold storage warehouse in a zone that currently allows construction of a 45 ft. building. And once again, as on the first occasion last October 25, the Planning Board asked for justification of the construction of the massive building on the western waterfront. The request for a business plan was addressed to Bill Needelman, city waterfront coordinator, who is requesting the change on behalf of Portland’s Economic Development Department and to John Henshaw, Executive Director of the Maine Port Authority.
At the outset, Needelman said that following the October 25 meeting, the city decided to step back and work in a more collaborative way with west end neighbors. Needelman did meet with west end leaders, but there has been no indication of a more collaborative relationship resulting. In fact, it was suggested by the planning board that there be another neighborhood meeting before the third workshop to work more collaboratively. A scheduled December 13, 2016 planning board meeting was cancelled with short notice to accommodate the outreach by Needelman and others.
Henshaw told the planning board that Americold was one of two companies who responded to a RFP the Maine Port Authority issued. The RFP stated that the site was zoned for 45 ft. Americold submitted three options. Two of them were for warehouse heights of 52 ft. and the third for a warehouse with a height of 65″.
After meeting with city officials and International Marine Terminal (IMT) officials Americold stated that to be financially viable, their business model would require building to 68 ft. plus rooftop compressors, etc. Portland’s Economic Development Department then decided to seek a zoning change first to 70 ft. and as of last week to 75 ft. “But zoning has changed numerous times over the past ten years,” Needelman argued with mhn.com.
Local architect Patrick Costin was hired last month to “craft a design to help people understand scale and what is being proposed.” He recommended that all mechanicals be relocated on an intermediary roof to mitigate the height, erect a canopy in front to look like steps, and relocate the administrative offices from the top floors to the first floor, and illumination of the building, for example. Some walls might be used for public art spaces. “I think it will fit like a shoe that fits once its finished,” said Costin. Opponents weren’t moved.
But, more than 20 opponents of the massive warehouse testified against the increased height of the warehouse. Sonia Robertson told the board that “this warehouse is the building equivalent of the Franklin Street Arterial. It is too big, too out of scale and too disruptive to the visual gateway to Portland. Rather than try to scale it back like the Arterial after the fact, build it appropriately new. Proposals were submitted for a 45′ facility. While there is time, revisit those proposals and approve a building that is in scale with the location and meets the current zoning requirements.” (See above left photo.)
“Please understand that one of the reasons the community is so united against zoning changes for Americold is that city planners seem intent on using this project as a precedent rather than an exception – and they risk turning the western waterfront into what will amount to a 75” wall of warehouses, west end resident Tom Robinson testified. (See above left photo.) City planner Caitlin Cameron presented a possible zone change for the board’s consideration that would permit construction of buildings at 75 ft. high for the entire area replacing the current 45 ft. limit – a zone change that would benefit the newly constructed New Yard, located in the vicinity and owned by Phin Sprague, Jr., who testified in favor of the increased height.
“……i’s 2017 and yes, business is good here. We are enjoying a stronger economy in Portland and the evidence is everywhere you look. I’ve never seen so much commercial development….So, with bidding wars for land and fast-racked construction projects all over the peninsula, why are we acting so desperately to meet one company’s wish list?” asked Carol L. Kelly, a west end resident.
Constance Bloomfield said that the request now for a 75 ft. warehouse comes from the fact this project is too large for this small piece of property.
One architect said that she and her husband bought and renovated a run-down John Calvin Stevens home on the west end – based on the 45 ft. zoning in place at the time.
In 1993, a waterfront zone was created that allowed for only 45 ft. high buildings. “What has changed since then?” asked board Chairwoman Elizabeth Boepple. “The market has changed……we could not foresee this economic development back in 1993,” responded Needleman. Boepple asked Greg Mitchell, Director of the Economic Development Office, what the economic value to the city is. Mitchell responded that it would put Portland on the world stage, just as musical events have. “This is a phenomenal opportunity,” he said.
Long-time board member Carol Morrisette asked for the “business plan” for the next workshop. David Eaton said the “message has been muddled. I need more specific information.” Chairwoman Boepple said that the board has no authority that requires mediation between the parties, but that additional discussion with the neighbors would be helpful.”, Henshaw testified earlier that he did not have the hard data sought by the board.
City councilor for the District Spencer Thibodeau did not attend the meeting. He recently stated at a West End Neighborhood Association meeting that he was opposed to the height increase at the time because he needs more information before he can make a decision.
Where is Americold in all of this? Except for attendance by a group of executives at a neighborhood meeting in mid-October, they have been absent from the process.
For more information, please email Jo Coyne at email@example.com or Bill Needelman at firstname.lastname@example.org