Thursday, October 28, 2010

New Beginning or the Beginning of the End for Portland's Working Waterfront?

Portland, Maine's commercial waterfront has been largely protected from non-marine development since voters passed a ballot initiative in the late 1980s. But as some marine sectors have declined, pier owners have argued that the zoning should be loosened to allow restaurants, retail stores, and other Old Port-style development on the piers and the water side of Commercial Street. Only in this way, they argue, can they generate sufficient revenue to maintain the piers.

While there's general agreement that the status quo isn't working [PDF, p. 5]-- and that the south side of Commercial Street could probably be developed without harming the working waterfront on the piers behind -- loosening the zoning for the overall Central Waterfront Zone is a tricky matter. Get the details wrong and Portland's fishermen, bait dealers, seafood buyers, and chandlers could be forced out by luxury hotels, swank restaurants, and tourist-minded shopping.

Zoning changes are working their way through the city's policy machinery. If they turn out to doom the working waterfront, someday we may look back on last night's Community Development Committee vote as the turning point. Councilor John Anton put forward a series of amendments that would serve as an insurance policy for the working waterfront [PDF], effectively separating the 150-feet bordering Commercial Street (where all sorts of development would be permitted) from the piers themselves (where restaurants, retail, and any non-marine first floor tenants would be banned.) Anton's amendments were defeated by his colleagues Cheryl Leeman (who argues there are plenty of safeguards already) and Dory Waxman (who didn't say much of anything.)

The unamended package goes before the full city council for final approval in December. Those who care about Portland's working waterfront should scrutinize it carefully beforehand, as at this stage even the stakeholders themselves aren't sure what the effect of the Byzantine rules will be, and the fail-safe button is now in the off position.

I'll be covering this story as it unfolds, and the potential effect of the proposed zoning changes becomes more clear.

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