Working Waterfront, R.I.P.?
Portland’s new zoning laws could expose marine industries to new dangers.
- By: Colin Woodard
Most American cities lost their historic working waterfronts decades ago to hotels, marinas, condominiums, and Disneyesque facsimiles, like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor or Lower Manhattan’s South Street Seaport Museum. If it survived at all, the real waterfront moved to the maritime equivalent of the suburbs in the form of gigantic mechanized container ports, rarely seen or thought of by residents of the urban core.
Portland has been an exception: a city where the fishing, shipping, passenger ship, and marine industrial sectors carry on their business right smack on its front steps. As a result, it still feels like a place that earns its living from the sea, where the suits from the office towers and the weekenders from Boston can share pints and conversation with lobstermen, ship chandlers, or even the occasional stevedore. The tourist industry benefits from the waterfront’s “authenticity,” landlubbing residents from regular contact with the city’s soul.
So valuable was all this to Portlanders that when it was threatened by waterfront condominium development in the 1980s, they passed a ballot measure that forced the city’s complacent leaders to rewrite zoning laws to protect marine users and ban most non-marine activities from a wide swath of the central waterfront. The resulting regime has been a model for the nation.
But just before Christmas, the Portland City Council voted 7-2 to weaken these protections, allowing greater non-marine development in the central waterfront zone, sixteen piers fronting Commercial Street at the foot of the Old Port and downtown districts. Supporters see the zoning changes as a reasonable, balanced reflection of the shrinking of the city’s trawler fleet and associated businesses. Critics see them as cavalier actions that have put the working waterfront’s fate subject to the fickle political winds blowing over City Hall.
Broadly speaking, two changes have been made. The first allows a wide range of new uses on land at the base ends of the piers, within 150 feet of Commercial Street — restaurants, retail shops, art galleries, museums, banks, offices, artists’ and craftsmen’s studios and their outside accessory activities — and has few detractors. The second allows these non-marine developments to occupy up to 45 percent of the surface of the piers themselves, including the ground floors of buildings. This decision — which follows a 2006 zoning change allowing 100 percent non-marine use on upper floors of buildings — was highly contentious.
Proponents argue the changes on the pier ends are actually quite modest, and present no risk to marine users. Pier owners are required to offer all space to the marine sector first, and can only market to others after sixty days of fruitless searching. Newcomers will be subject to review by city staff to ensure they meet certain “performance standards,” including access, operations, and parking for marine users. Hotels and residential developments remain prohibited.
“What we did is balanced and good for all parties,” says longtime councilor Cheryl Leeman, who championed the changes on behalf of pier owners, who’d long complained there weren’t enough marine tenants out there to pay for the upkeep of the piers. (The ground floor vacancy rate in the zone is 11 percent, 14 percent on the upper floors.) “We didn’t take it too far, we took it far enough to bring relief to pier owners’ rental properties.”
“I don’t see how fishermen are going to get displaced if they’re paying their rent,” adds Charlie Poole, whose family has owned Union Wharf for generations. “We’re not asking for a city handout or to have our property taxes reduced, but just to let the properties work.”
Councilor Edward Suslovic argues the groundfishermen — those who go after cod, haddock, and other bottom-dwelling fish — have already given up on Portland, after the state declined to allow them to earn a little extra money by selling lobsters that turn up in their nets. “That was the final straw for a lot of the groundfishing fleet. They’ve gone to Massachusetts ports, and I don’t see any reason they’ll come back,” he says. “Because of that, there is less demand for water-dependent uses, so it doesn’t make sense to force the pier owners to hold open those unoccupied spaces.”
If the groundfishery does come roaring back — or if restaurants and T-shirt shops begin driving out lobstermen or bait dealers — city councilors have promised to revisit the issue. “I felt confident moving this forward because of the fact we’ll keep a really close eye on this,” says another supporter, councilor Dory Waxman. “If it doesn’t work, it will be readjusted.” Mayor Nick Mavodones agrees. “Some wanted us to go with a more incremental approach, but I just didn’t see the risk,” he says. “If we see things going in the wrong direction, we’ll revisit it.”
Opponents are not impressed with these arguments, noting that political promises are no substitute for solid regulatory protections. “We’re too old to just run on the faith of a promise,” says lobsterman Willis Spear, who ties up at Custom House Wharf. “When a non-marine user is willing to pay ten times as much to put an office on a wharf, the wharf owner could tell the existing tenant, ‘Your lease is up, your bait stinks, I need the parking, and I want you out of here.’ He’d have to advertise for sixty days, but marine tenants are few and far between. Those city councilors say they’ll watch out, but they may not be there six or ten years from now.”
More discouraging to marine users was the fact that the council rejected, 6-3, a proposal to liberalize the zoning along Commercial Street, but to leave the pier ends as they are for now. “This would have supported pier owners with the ability to develop away from the water’s edge, but to avoid the risk of displacement and tenant conflicts out on the pier,” says the measure’s sponsor, councilor John Anton, who was backed only by his two fellow Green councilors. “Now the only safeguards are these performance standards, which come down to implementation. I think they will fall into the ‘easier said than done’ category.”
“Why did they have to take these two very big steps at once?” asks waterfront activist and former mayor Anne Pringle. “Once a space is improved for restaurant use, it will be very hard to ever convert it back to marine storage space.”
Attorney Barbara Vestal, who advised lobstermen in their unsuccessful effort to block the end-of-the-piers changes, says water-dependent users may simply be “strangled to death” by being surrounded by uses that inhibit their freedom to move and operate efficiently. “The city took it on faith that more non-marine activity in the zone will contribute to the viability of marine users,” she says. “We can’t assume this is always true.”
As late as December, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Department of Marine Resources (DMR) shared these concerns, each writing letters to the city council warning them that the changes would jeopardize commercial fishing. “The concern is that the changes go too far too fast,” says DMR’s then-deputy commissioner David Etnier. “The need for it hasn’t been justified to us or to DEP.”
The DEP has the power to block or modify shoreland zoning changes to property within 250 feet of the ocean, but with the inauguration of Paul LePage in early January, the agency’s position may change. LePage has promised to get rid of regulations that impede businesses, and nominated a developer, Darryl Brown, to head the DEP. LePage’s spokesman, Dan Demeritt, did not respond to our request for comment.
Ironically, the decision to weaken working waterfront protections comes at a time when groundfish stocks are recovering under a stringent federal plan. The latest assessments from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) show several key stocks at healthy levels, and others rebuilding nicely. While some are still extremely weak — including many flounders and Georges Bank cod — all of them will be fully rebuilt to healthy levels by 2014, according to Steve Murawski, NMFS’s just-retired chief science advisor. “In the next five to ten years there will be a reasonably good fishery for small- and medium-sized boats in Portland,” he predicts.
“There’s hundreds of millions of dollars of product waiting to be harvested out there,” agrees Jim Odlin, who owns five Portland-based groundfish trawlers, but currently lands his catch in Massachusetts, so he can sell lobsters found in their nets. “If the lobster rules were changed the boats would come back almost overnight, because most of the fishermen who moved their boats to Massachusetts still live in Maine and don’t want to commute two hours to work.”
That said, the groundfishing industry may not need that much space beyond that already reserved for them at the city-owned Fish Pier, where the Fish Exchange is located.
“We’ve had increases in productivity due to forklifts and hydraulic winches and roller conveyors,” says John Norton, of Cozy Harbor Seafood. “Even if we had the same volume of product coming over the wharves that we used to in the fifties and sixties, it could be handled by fewer facilities.” Fish Exchange general manager Bert Jongerden says finding dockage won’t be a problem either: “There will be a light expansion, but I could berth at least twelve boats [on Fish Pier] and right now we usually only have two or three.”
Paradoxically, the real danger appears to be that healthy waterfront businesses like lobster fishermen and bait suppliers will be driven out by the needs and spending power of deeper-pocketed tenants. (Maine’s lobster fishery has been generally thriving for two decades, and the central waterfront is home to one hundred lobster-boats and a half dozen lobster pounds.) Waterfront restaurants may find their upscale patrons don’t enjoy the smell of drying trawler nets or the sound of chains being dragged across a steel deck.
Last year, the state’s largest law firm, Pierce Atwood, announced it was moving its headquarters from Monument Square to a long-vacant industrial building at the base of the Fish Pier, but then balked at the presence of trailers belonging to a small bait dealer renting nearby. “They make the entire site seem like a dead-end industrial alley rather than a gateway to the harbor,” Pierce Atwood partner Dennis Keeler wrote a city official in one of several e-mails acquired by the Portland Press Herald. “I would not be willing to bring any of my clients to this site . . . Unless these trailers and related containers are removed and protections are put in place to ensure that they don’t come back . . . Pierce Atwood has no interest in moving to this site.” City officials ordered them moved.
One thing everyone agrees on is that it will take the better part of a decade before the effect of the changes is clear. “Will history look back and say the fishermen did not let the horse into Troy?” Spears asks. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
- By: Colin Woodard