Saving a sinking waterfront

Redeveloping the Maine State Pier has gone wrong from the beginning — let’s get our priorities back in order
By DEIRDRE FULTON, CHRISTOPHER GRAY, AND JEFF INGLIS  |  August 29, 2007
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The near-identical proposals to fix up and revitalize the Maine State Pier are in as uninspiring shape as the pier itself. The governmental process surrounding those proposals is even worse off.

You know where we’re talking about: that crumbling relic of a dock down Commercial Street past Flatbread and the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal, the one with the vacant warehouse with mural of whales on the side. The one where the only public space available is a giant concrete moonscape whose main pedestrian access involves walking through a parking lot of cars waiting for the next ferry.

The city-owned pier itself at the moment is an embarrassment. It is falling to pieces, in need of an estimated $15 million in repairs just to keep it from falling into the bay. Surprise! The city didn’t notice until it was too late, and doesn’t have the money to fix it up. The only solution the city saw? A “public-private partnership.” Or, rather, private redevelopment, for profit, with the developer fixing the pier and paying some extra “lease” payments to the city, plus, of course, all the property taxes due on whatever is built.

The process was riddled with problems from the start, which we outline below. Don’t think for a second that the city council isn’t considering sacrificing public spaces for future tax dollars. And don’t think for a moment that the two private companies bidding to spend around $100 million on fixing and building and improving are actually doing this because they want you and me to have a great time on their new part of our city’s waterfront.

For both Ocean Properties, the New Hampshire-based company with deep political ties to Portland and Maine (backers include the governor's brother and his cousin, former US senator George Mitchell), and the Olympia Companies, a Portland-based hotel and commercial-space developer with a politically savvy cadre of its own, money’s the root of it all.

Which is all by way of saying this project stinks. There’s still time, though: the council is slated to vote Wednesday, September 5, on which proposal — if either — to accept. They can still be persuaded to start the whole thing over, and do things right this time. Here, we explain what’s wrong, and talk about what we might like to see in the future of the Maine State Pier, should it ever be put aright.

Arrested development
If the Portland City Council chooses one of two big-money developers to oversee the rebuilding and revitalization of the Maine State Pier on September 5, the decision will irreversibly affect the future of Portland’s waterfront — one of the city’s most defining characteristics, if not the most inherent.

So why does that possibility seem so painfully anticlimactic? Rather than eagerly anticipating the resurrection of a downtown landmark, most of the city is disillusioned, or at least detached, from the process. Regardless of whether the contract is awarded to Ocean Properties, or the Olympia Companies, the pronouncement — whenever it comes — will make front-page news.

But really, who cares?

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