On top of the fact that the proposals are eerily similar, the whole process has been such a clusterfuck that it’s difficult to muster either enthusiasm or the desire to learn more. At an August 20 public hearing on pier development in the city council’s chambers, one attendee asked: “Is there any chance that this entire process of choosing could just be stopped and we could start at square one?”
That isn’t an outlandish question, considering this list of blunders:
Rezoning too quickly
“The rewriting of the zoning was disingenuous,” says John Anton, a former member of the Portland Planning Board who voted against the decision to change the State Pier’s zoning designation from one requiring exclusively ocean-related uses to one that allows mixed-use between marine industries, hotels, restaurants, and retail.
Anton, who is now running for an at-large seat on the city council, notes that “for better or for worse, the city can belabor” certain issues (think of the city’s dilly-dallying on issues like where to site a new skate park, or how to handle nightlife in the Old Port). In contrast, the rezoning question was addressed in an “unbelievably expedited fashion,” Anton says. “It was sort of obviously informed with a specific type of project in mind.”
Indeed, for the first several months of redevelopment discussions, Ocean Properties was the only developer mentioned in association with this potential project; Ocean Properties spokesman Dennis Bailey says that the company “had been working on this some time prior to the actual release of the RFP ...They had a bit of a head start,” leading some observers to suggest that the process was driven by developer concerns, rather than development concerns.
“Conceptually, the city needs to be taking the lead,” says Portland lawyer and longtime waterfront activist Barbara Vestal, who is concerned with maintaining and retaining the city’s water access at the Maine State Pier, including the deep-water space that allows big vessels to dock there.
Only two proposals
When the “nationally advertised” Request for Proposals (RFP) was issued by city officials in October, at-large councilor James Cloutier made it clear that he was expecting big things from big places: “We have not prejudged what world-class marine operators might bring to the table for ideas,” he said in the Portland Press Herald [emphasis added].
Sources say that eight development entities asked for copies of the detailed criteria that outlined what the city was looking for in terms of pier uses and physical considerations. Obviously, only two companies — Ocean Properties and Olympia — followed through to the point of actually submitting plans. Why so few?
First of all, it’s because projects of this magnitude — in terms of both physical size and financing — typically draw limited numbers of proposals. But another culprit could be the short amount of time — about three and a half months — given to development teams to come up with their plans. “We were surprised,” says Sasa Milosavljevic-Cook, project manager at Olympia. “We had asked for nine months.”
However, deadlines are less important than overall process, says Kathy Madden, senior vice president of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces — “whether the appropriate groundwork and the vision had been done beforehand.” The clearer the “place-based” vision, she says, the more effective the call for proposals.