Portland looking back to move ahead

Posted June 28, 2013, at 2:36 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Residents don’t have to look too far into the past to see examples of projects that never reached fruition.

The phrase “Maine State Pier” still stings for some Portlanders more than four years after not one but two $100 million-plus development proposals for the waterfront site flamed out as a result of a legal squabble and the onset of the recession.

So while the three-phase, $150-million Midtown project — proposed to include four 16-story towers, parking garages and retail and housing space — has been called “transformative” for development in Portland and could define the city’s skyline in 10 years, residents “have a sense of caution,” Portland Community Chamber consultant Christopher O’Neil said.

O’Neil called himself one of the more “optimistic” people to weigh in on Portland’s future. He envisioned population growth from around 66,000 to as much as 90,000 and as much as $1 billion in construction over the next decade.

But with cautionary examples such as the two Maine State Pier proposals in recent history, O’Neil also acknowledged that “Portland has a healthy sense of realism when it comes to projects.”

“I think Portlanders are indeed cautious about Thompson’s Point and Midtown,” he said. “Those are tentative, regarding completion.”

The $105 million Thompson’s Point project was permitted by the city last year to feature a sports arena, hotel, medical facility, restaurants and office space. While many of those components may still ultimately be a part of the development when it is complete, developers with Forefront Partners I recently dialed back plans for the first phase of construction, delaying the build of the arena, among other adjustments.

Some big proposals plotted for Portland and its environs over the past few decades haven’t even reached Phase One.

New York developer John Cacoulidis proposed a pair of 41-story hotels and an associated convention center for the South Portland waterfront, which could have been connected with Portland by an aerial tramway, more than a decade ago. But city officials didn’t permit the ambitious project in the face of public opposition.

In 1998, philanthropist Elizabeth Noyce offered $20 million to help build a new sports and entertainment arena in the city’s Bayside neighborhood, but the plan fizzled after it became clear that the city would need to invest more than $40 million more to make it work.

The moral of the story, said O’Neil, is that not every major proposal becomes reality.

But the Chamber consultant said he believes the tide is shifting, and more of the big plans in the works today will become reality.

“I think Portland’s been gaining momentum for the last year or two, and in the next decade, Portland will be transformed radically, and in a good way,” he said. “Portland needs to say, ‘yes.’ Portland needs to get to ‘yes’ more readily, and Portland seems to have shown more willingness to say ‘yes’ in recent years. I think what happened with the Maine State Pier really woke people up.”

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