Portland renovation lets lawyers live with the fishes

This 19th century brick structure on Merrill's Wharf will become the new home for Pierce Atwood later this month. The renovation project is being hailed by supporters as a model for adapting a waterfront for new uses without excluding traditional, fishing-related uses.
This 19th century brick structure on Merrill's Wharf will become the new home for Pierce Atwood later this month. The renovation project is being hailed by supporters as a model for adapting a waterfront for new uses without excluding traditional, fishing-related uses.
Posted Sept. 15, 2011, at 5:15 a.m.
Last modified Sept. 15, 2011, at 5:54 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — For nearly 60 years, the massive brick Cumberland Cold Storage building on Merrill’s Wharf sat boarded up on the waterfront. Later this month, after extensive renovations, the largest law firm in northern New England will begin moving in, launching what supporters of the reclamation project are calling an innovative new model for mixing uses on a working waterfront.

Thomas Valleau — a member of the board of directors for the nearby Portland Fish Exchange, a city-owned live seafood auction house — described the 100,000-square-foot, five-story structure’s resurrection as a paradigm buster.

“The conventional wisdom was that you can’t have high-end office space on a working waterfront — you have to have one or the other,” Valleau told the Bangor Daily News this week. “We have found a third way. We’re going to have a magnificently renovated building, we’re going to have a newly housed bait company, we’re going to have a much-needed new revenue stream for the fish exchange, and we’re going to capture 120 attorney jobs, plus their support staff. You can have your cake and eat it, too. I think this is going to be a project that will change the way people think about how to manage a working waterfront.”

The Cumberland Cold Storage Building was constructed incrementally in the 1800s and early 1900s and tenants for the structure revolved over time. But by 1962, the place was boarded up, and that’s the way it sat until recently, said Dennis Keeler, a partner at Pierce Atwood, the law firm slated to move into 70,000 square feet of the building starting on Sept. 24.

When Keeler moved to the area in 1984, the building had settled into abandonment, with cinder blocks filling many of the window spaces, he said.

“It was sort of like something out of [the movie] ‘ Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ where if you opened a window or opened a door, the whole building would crumble into dust around you,” he said.

And now?

“These offices will be on magazine covers,” said Valleau, who toured the structure and got an update on its progress last week. “It is a stunning project.”

The $10 million-plus plan to move the well-known law firm into a century-old deteriorating building next to an enclave of fishing-related operations was not without its challenges, however.

Keeler said the regional firm began looking for a new Maine home more than a year ago, after the outfit’s lease at the prominent One Monument Square building approached an end and “we simply were unable to reach terms [for renewal] with our landlords.”

Pierce Atwood began considering building a new headquarters in South Portland, closer to the highways and Portland International Jetport, but Keeler said the longtime downtown Portland anchor tenants wanted to remain near the bustling center of Maine’s largest city.

“The problem was, we’re too big,” Keeler said. “We need 70,000 square feet of space, and if you look around, there aren’t a lot of places with 70,000 square feet of space available [in the downtown].”

Keeler said he and other Pierce Atwood executives saw the run-down Cumberland Cold Storage building from their Monument Square office windows, and the seed was planted to fix the place up to serve as their new home. Such a project would not have been allowed just five years ago, Keeler said, because city codes prevented nonmarine uses in waterfront buildings such as that one, part of a two-decade-old effort to block widespread condominium developments on Portland’s historic piers.

But a series of ordinance changes over the past few years cracked open the door to nonmarine uses above the first floor of such structures and further to allow 45 percent of the first floor to be rented out to nonmarine tenants.

The arrival of Pierce Atwood will infuse the neighborhood with 175 to 200 new daily workers who likely will become customers for nearby stores and restaurants, Keeler noted. Health care consulting firm Compass Health Analytics also reportedly will join Pierce Atwood in the building, taking up a portion of the second floor that the law firm isn’t slated to occupy.

“When we looked at it and started to get excited about it, we said, ‘Look, this is something that could change a whole neighborhood,’” Keeler said. “It could put 200 people down there on a daily basis, to a neighborhood that had been sort of left behind.”

That injection of spending money ultimately won’t come at the expense of traditional marine-related operations on the nearby city-owned Fish Pier — at least those operations that are there now.

Pierce Atwood and the Brunswick-based Waterfront Maine will pay the Portland Fish Exchange an annual amount to preserve a covenant over a net yard — a large open space where local fishermen can open and repair nets — to the east of the building for as long as 35 years. The payments will start out at $20,000 per year and will escalate over the life of the covenant, reaching a total amount of about $935,000 if the options are renewed to the end of the 35-year span.

The building owner and its anchor tenant also paid nearly $135,000 to move the Dropping Springs Lobster & Bait, which supplies bait to lobstermen, from that net yard, where the company worked from refrigerated trailers, to a new building closer to the fish exchange.

In tandem, Valleau said, the arrangements protected the newly repurposed office building’s waterfront view — the mending of nets is not regarded as an obstruction — while leaving the displaced bait dealer in a better facility.

The city of Portland also made a deal with the law firm and building owner, providing a 20-year tax break worth about $2.6 million to help offset the costs of the renovations, which included the complete overhaul of the structure’s guts, 325 new windows and the delicate task of driving new piles into bedrock from inside the downtrodden building.

Keeler said the city received about $17,000 in property taxes each year from the building before the renovations, and even with the tax break, will receive about $96,000 annually from the property moving forward.

“It was brilliant,” Valleau said. “We found solutions. We put ourselves in a partnership and we found solutions.”

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