The city has managed this by brute-force zoning laws: when the first tacky condos went up on Chandlers Wharf (pictured) in the 1980s, the city reacted quickly and viscerally to outlaw any non-marine activities on Portland's wharves. This kept rents low for the city's remaining marine businesses and let them continue doing business without fear of offending new neighbors.
But the 1980s, when kitsch like these condos and the "Dimillos Floating Restaurant" were introduced, was also the last time that the waterfront's creaking wharves attracted any real investment. Rental income from fishermen and other marine businesses alone isn't enough to maintain the docks and pilings, and after over two decades of the working waterfront protections, many piers are in dire need of repair and serious investment. Besides that, most of Maine's fisheries have collapsed, and there just aren't enough marine businesses operating anymore to fill up Portland's three-mile harborfront coastline. As a result, one gorgeous 19th-century brick warehouse has had its windows plugged with cinderblocks to be used for storage.
And on the western end of the waterfront, beyond the Casco Bay Bridge, is a mile-long stretch of waterfront that's been abandoned entirely for decades now:
A wrecked wharf and early-successional birch forest on the former Maine Central railroad yards of West Commercial Street, Portland.
This month, pier owners are lobbying the city to loosen its restrictive zoning, to make the business of operating a working waterfront a bit more feasible. Some of their suggested changes are productive: doing away with the requirement to set aside valuable waterfront real estate for parking, for instance. But others seem to be aimed at allowing hotels and other tourist catnip to replace the bait shacks and warehouses.
As many people have noted, though, the fishing piers and marine warehouses on the waterfront are a big part of what define's Portland's sense of itself - even if it isn't a huge part of the economy anymore. If those places get replaced with Hard Rock Cafe franchises and hotels, what's to distinguish our city from Baltimore or Boston or San Francisco or any other of the numerous cities that have auctioned off their historic waterfront districts to transform them into cheesy shopping malls?
The pier owners say that non-marine land uses are necessary to preserve what's left of the working waterfront. But five-star hotels and office buildings for lawyers are almost certain to drive up rents and displace what's left of the city's waterfront marine industries. The pier owners are telling us that in order to save the working waterfront, they need to kick out the working waterfront.
I'm not sure that the choice has to be such a stark distinction, between dilapidated piers and strict, industry-only zoning on the one hand, and Disneyfication on the other. On the one hand, I agree with the premise that the pier owners need their businesses to be more profitable than it is now so that they can repair their wharves and keep them from falling into the ocean. But I also agree that zoning can have a productive role in maintaining a place for struggling marine industries in the midst of development pressure from high-rent offices and hotels.
I've written here before about what I believe the solution would be: allow any kind of development on the city's waterfront wharves and piers, as long as a substantial portion of the ground level of those developments are constructed to be useful and adaptable for marine industrial tenants. Go ahead and build that hotel, on the condition that 3/4 of the ground level will be fitted out for lobster pounds and marine repair shops. The city could also dedicate a portion of new tax revenue from new developments to economic development programs for marine industries, in order to keep that ground-level space occupied.
Sure, we can make room for new development on the waterfront. But that doesn't mean we can't also preserve space for the marine industries that are already there.
This week, March 2nd and 3rd, the City will host (yet another) pair of public discussions about the working waterfront, in advance of a discussion about zoning changes. Details here.