Thursday, March 8, 2007

Park it: Both proposals for the Maine State Pier are missing something big

Published in the Portland Phoenix

If you believe the Portlanders who worked on the Olympia Companies proposal for redeveloping the Maine State Pier, the competition between their outfit and Ocean Properties, led by former US senator George Mitchell and Bob Baldacci, is simple: big money versus local ideas. Which isn’t entirely true.

Both firms have local ties, and connections elsewhere, and are backed by incredibly wealthy men. The Two Big Names (respectively, the cousin and brother of the governor) have teamed up through Ocean Properties, a New Hampshire-based firm (owned by a billionaire Mainer whose company is paying a lower business-tax rate than if it were based in Maine), backed by firms from Portsmouth, Portland, and Yarmouth. The Portland-based Olympia Companies (led by a multi-millionaire Mainer) have assembled a collective of nine firms from Portland and two from Massachusetts to do the planning work.

If you believe the local daily paper, the two proposals are largely the same and equally good. That’s not entirely true, either.

The ideas submitted in response to the city’s request for plans to repair and refit the Maine State Pier into something that enhances the city’s waterfront both economically and aesthetically have similar budgets ($90 million for Ocean and $91 million for Olympia) and similar ideas for how much area should be dedicated to retail, hotel, open space, cruise-ship terminal operations, ferry loading, and other uses.

But even on paper, the plans are radically different. And each of them has a major flaw that may prevent either from ever actually turning the decrepit and collapsing Maine State Pier into something other than an ugly remnant of Portland’s working waterfront.

Olympia’s plan shows full-color vistas, including a projected view from the intersection of Commercial Street and the Franklin Arterial that has a wide grassy swath leading down to the water between curved building facades and a clean, convenient ramp for cars to get on the Casco Bay Lines ferries. (Imagine! the picture seems to say aloud, if you could see the water from Commercial Street without looking through dingy alleys or vast parking lots!) This is a view to kill for.

Ocean Properties opens its plan with a three-color sketch of a big-box-store-like “public market” (see the sidebar for why the gov’s bro says this one won’t fail) with an 80-car parking lot right in front of it. Real nice. Just what we need — another parking lot smack on the waterfront. To make matters worse, Olympia’s view from Commercial and Franklin all the way down to the water is, in Ocean’s plan, a 350-space parking garage (that brick facing will look great).

For one project, the parking makes everything ugly; for the other, there’s no such worry. It makes choosing easy for the public, and for councilors, right? Not so fast.

Parking is precisely the difference between the two projects: Ocean Properties’ plan includes that giant garage and the street-level parking lot, for a total of 430 parking spaces, of the 608 the project would use at peak capacity under city guidelines. (The city allows developers to build fewer spaces than their projects would appear to require.) This will no doubt be the subject of major community objection, because parking is ugly.

Olympia’s proposal doesn’t raise that kind of concern. It’s a beautiful plan, but partly because it has no parking at all. Well, that’s not entirely fair. Olympia’s plan does include an unspecified but very small number of “short-term on street parking” spaces for people to drop off or pick up ferry passengers, or pop into some of the businesses in the new development. But the company admits its project would use 440 parking spaces at peak demand under current city guidelines, which would require the company to build as many as 220 new ones as part of the project.

The company has, however, set aside $13 million to spend finding parking, possibly, its proposal says, “with long term leases in either the Casco Bay Lines Garage or the Ocean Gateway Garage.”

That’s a nice idea. Except that the Casco Bay Parking Garage (which is not owned by Casco Bay Lines) has a seven-year-long waiting list to get even one reserved parking space. And the 700-plus-space Ocean Gateway Garage is not yet built, but is sized to accommodate the tenants and visitors in the Ocean Gateway project, so relying on that garage to lease out a large portion of its spaces may be a bit wishful.

The only remaining option will be — you guessed it — building a parking garage. Thirteen million is plenty for a big one: at the going rate of between $15,000 and $20,000 per space to build a parking garage, it could be between 650 and 870 spaces — significantly larger than the city-owned Spring Street garage next to the Cumberland County Civic Center, which has just over 500 spaces.

So Portlanders — and specifically the city councilors — are left to decide between an ugly-but-practical project backed by big names that will not significantly improve Portland’s waterfront aesthetics, or a beautiful project that will require a big shiny new parking garage somewhere nearby. Where, exactly, would it go? That’s a choice we can all look forward to.