Monday, April 23, 2007

Can mixed uses preserve the working waterfront?

The idea of putting office buildings and hotels on the Maine State Pier has a lot of problems, but there's also one big merit: new development could raise a lot of money to fix and preserve the pier's deep-water berth, an important piece of waterfront infrastructure.

In the 1980s, a few developers solved the problem of pier maintenance by building condos (on Chandler's Wharf, for example), but the condos effectively evicted marine industries and led the City to enact protective zoning for the working waterfront. New residences are now forbidden on the harbor and non-marine commercial uses are restricted. This solution does a reasonable job of preserving the working waterfront, but Portland's wharves are in bad shape, and some waterfront buildings are tragically underutilized (I'm thinking of a historic 5-story brick warehouse near the Portland Fish Pier in particular: a beautiful building in a great, central location, but its windows are bricked in and the structure is being used for storage).

In effect, the problem is this: we'd like to preserve the working waterfront as a place that's affordable and practical for fishermen and marine industrial businesses to do business, but those businesses are having a hard time paying for the maintenance of Portland's piers and wharves.

Here's a possible solution: allow mixed-use developments on Portland's waterfront, with any kind of space (residential, office, retail, or hotel) allowed above the first floor, on the condition that the ground levels of new buildings are reserved only for marine industrial uses.

By allowing other types of activity on (or rather, above) the piers and wharves of Portland harbor, we can attract more private investment to pay for waterfront infrastructure. At the same time, stipulating that the ground floor of waterfront buildings must be reserved for fishermen and industry will preserve their access to the working waterfront.

Mixed-use development is gaining in popularity, but the idea of industrial mixed-use is still fairly new. One early example could be built in West Oakland, California, where a developer is proposing residential high-rises above manufacturing warehouses (see rendering at left). The proposal would preserve some of the Bay Area's scarce industrial land while providing new housing for a tight residential market.

Ground-floor industrial uses are also allowed under new zoning schemes in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood and Vancouver, Canada: both are cities where overheated housing prices are crowding out traditional blue-collar industries.

I think it's an intriguing idea for Portland, but I'm curious to know what others think. Could mixed uses preserve the working waterfront and its infrastructure while making better use of haborfront property? Or would it be another nail in the coffin of our fishing and marine industries? I hope that some of you readers will comment and share your thoughts.

1 comment:

Paul Burdick said...

While in support of most mixed use zoning, I think any industrial/live zoning will ultimately fail. The nature of industry is that it changes the environment and atmosphere of an area, typically in the direction of declining the standard of living.

When I think of marine industrial use, I am not sure that is a place I would ever wish to live above. Nor can I imagine many others leaping at the chance unless the housing market was really expensive or the tenants were meant to be workers in the industry below.

Are there any studies or positive examples out there?