Late last week, Portland City Hall unwrapped two developers' proposals for the publicly-owned Maine State Pier. The Pier extends into Portland's deep harbor, which means that it is an ideal berth for large ships and an extremely valuable piece of marine infrastructure. Its wooden pilings have also been sinking and deteriorating into the harbor, and the city has been trying to find a tenant that would invest in the pier and breathe some life into the working waterfront for some time. Late last year, it turned to private developers to try and fulfil those goals.
The proposals we've received would at least shore up the pier, but with cruise ships, luxury hotels, and waterfront restaurants figuring prominently in both plans, it looks like tough luck for the working waterfront. Still, this being a big project for public real estate, we'll have plenty of opportunities to weigh in on these proposals, and to change them for the better.
At first blush, I prefer the Olympia Properties plan, shown above. Olympia is a Portland developer that has built a number of the Old Port's recent additions, including the Hilton Garden Inn and the currently-expanding office building next to Fore Street restaurant. They're also turning into Portland's leaders in green construction, having finished the city's first LEED-certified office building (50 Sewall Street, next to Oil Slick Marsh) and proposing two new LEED-certified buildings on and near the Pier in this proposal.
But what really strikes me about the Olympia plan are the public spaces. First and foremost is "Casco Bay Park," a proposed greenspace at the base of the pier that would give Portland unprecedented access to its harbor. The park would extend the Old Port's pedestrian environment into the harbor: the plan includes steps that lead down into the water for kayak launching and frigid wading.
The Olympia plan also breaks up the cold, bleak Compass Park at the end of the pier with a pedestrian-oriented collection of buildings that will house what the proposal calls "a variety of retail and artisan spaces" (read: t-shirts and scented candle shoppes). This might turn into an Old Orchard Beach-style kitchfest, but I do agree that Compass Park needs to be reworked in order to succeed as a public space.
More bonus points to Olympia for making their plan available on the front page of their web site.
I know less about the other proposal, from Portsmouth-based Ocean Properties, because these developers are too troglodyte to publish an electronic copy of the plan. I give them one strike for their hideously ugly fish logo and a nauseating web site. If they win the development, will the Maine State Pier look like that, full of champagne glasses, floral prints, and old people carrying tennis rackets?
You can't judge an urban development project by its developer's web page. From news reports and a few sketches like the ones above, though, I get the impression that the web page just scratches the surface of Ocean Properties' lousy sense of design.
Public space in this proposal is pushed aside to the tip of the pier in an "enhanced" Compass Park and on "public rooftop gardens." In my experience, public spaces that require a stair climb or elevator ride are seldom very vibrant, and in the rendering, Compass Park looks like it will remain exposed to the elements and inhospitable: windy and cold nine months out of the year and baking in the blazing sun for the other three.
The Ocean Properties plan dedicates a lot more space to automobile storage: they propose a large parking garage right next to the existing Casco Bay Lines garage, and they also dedicate a large portion of the pier itself to a surface parking lot. But the surface lot will double as an "event space," they claim - so add an oil-soaked field of asphalt to the list of lackluster quasi-public spaces in this proposal.
The one intriguing idea from this proposal is its dedication of a building on the tip of the pier to a "public market." This might be another euphemism for a t-shirt bazaar, but if it were something more like a public farmers' and fish market (like Seattle's famous Pike Place), it might compensate for some of this proposal's serious deficiencies.
Both proposals neglect the working waterfront: the fisheries and industries that define Portland. But both proposals will shore up the Maine State Pier, and one proposal would give Portland what could be some spectacular new public spaces. Cruise ships may be the order of the day, but these developments at least preserve the possibility of future industrial uses by securing the future of the pier itself.
A public forum and presentation of the proposals will be conducted at the library on Thursday, March 1 from 5:30 to 7:30.