Portland’s Bayside renaissance: $8 million in city investments triggers nearly $140 million in private development

Posted Feb. 17, 2013, at 9:39 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 17, 2013, at 5:54 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland’s Bayside neighborhood has a history of turmoil. Recent decades in which the area was defined by mountains of industrial scraps were at least a peaceful turn from more violent previous years, described by some historians as a virtual war zone.

But neither landscape satisfied Portland residents or city officials as the 21st century loomed, and an aggressive plan to reinvent the 30-plus-acre Bayside was hatched. In the nearly 13 years since that new vision was finalized, the city has spent nearly $8 million in targeted investments to recast Bayside as an attractive mixed-use neighborhood, smiling up at Interstate 295 commuters who in prior years saw piles of metal waste on that side of the highway.

The municipal government’s decision to play a heavy role in the redevelopment of a neighborhood — largely made up of puzzle-piece lots the city did not initially own — has paid off in terms of coaxing private investment into a part of town that Portland leaders say desperately needed it. While the city poured $8 million into the ambitious project — to improve the roads, build a walking trail, obtain properties and relocate businesses — private developers responded with nearly $140 million in past or proposed investments.

The most recent and perhaps highest-profile project of all is the $38 million Phase I of what is proposed to ultimately be a nearly $90 million series of 14-story towers with nearly 700 market-rate apartments and 90,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space.

“We should do as well on the stock market as the city did with Bayside,” said Richard Knowland, a senior planner with the city.

“I’ve seen over the last 15 years Bayside [rebound from being] a fairly unattractive, underdeveloped part of the city — and not a very welcoming part of the city,” said Portland Mayor Michael Brennan. “When people came into Portland and they went through 295, Marginal Way at that time was not our best foot forward. … I think the city, the city council and policymakers of the past have done a good job taking an underdeveloped part of the city and turning it into a rising star.”

‘Slum clearing’

Ron Spinella is a board member and former president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association. He and his wife, Christine, moved from a 65-acre Limerick farm to an 1840s-era Cumberland Avenue building on the southern edge of the Bayside area about 16 years ago.

Spinella’s home, which also houses the couple’s 3fish art gallery, is a throwback to a previous period of prosperity in the neighborhood. The place was built by a craftsman at a time when many artisans thrived in the area, he said.

Portland’s Great Fire of 1866, which destroyed 1,800 buildings and left an estimated 10,000 homeless, largely spared Bayside. Demand for space in the neighborhood grew, and through the years fill was added to Back Cove to supply that space.

In Portland’s infancy, Back Cove crept all the way up near Oxford Street, meaning about five city blocks worth of what’s today Bayside was for most of history underwater.

The man-made land provided for more and more development, but after decades of growth, the Great Depression plummeted the neighborhood into perhaps greater despair than many other sections of the city.

“In the 1920s and 1930s, it began to go into decline for a variety of reasons, like the economy,” Spinella said. “Then in the 1940s, you had a period of ‘slum clearing,’ which was what they called it when [city officials] came in and said the buildings were too close together and it was too dense. You had official, government-sanctioned and -sponsored demolition.”

The newly cleared lots ultimately provided fertile ground for the emergence of manufacturing plants — and spinoff scrap yards — in the area, but the trouble for Bayside wasn’t over yet.

A wave of crime swept over the area in the late 1960s and early 1970s, highlighted by regular cases of arson — in part by building owners allegedly hoping to collect more in insurance than they could get on the market in the deteriorating remains of the neighborhood, Spinella said.

Bayside’s reputation and treatment as the city’s most dangerous and downtrodden area persisted for decades, he said.

“It was awful, it was like a battlefield,” said Spinella, whose neighborhood association has researched the area’s past. “There were old buildings torn down and bricks scattered around. Even by the time we moved here, people were dumping things along Kennebec Street. They were using it as a dump site — things that the scrapyards wouldn’t take, they’d leave it in the street anywhere.”

Gregory Mitchell, now the city of Portland’s economic development director, grew up in Portland and graduated from Cheverus High School in the late 1970s.

“I remember seeing the piles of scrap,” he recalled of the view of the city from Interstate 295, built in 1960, during his younger years. “They were mountains. They were part of the skyline.”

A new vision

By the time the city received U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funding in 1996 to help test and clean up the soils toxified by decades of industrial pollution at the city, Bayside had already been the subject of multiple fizzled plans to revive the neighborhood.

Neighborhood association board member Deborah Van Hoewyk wrote in the fall 2012 edition of the group’s The Baysider publication that planning consultants touting the latest development trends — such as urban renewal — targeted the area for saving in the 1960s and 1970s before losing traction and moving on to other horizons.

In 1998, philanthropist Elizabeth Noyce ’s Libra Foundation offered $20 million to help build a new indoor sports and entertainment arena in Bayside as a replacement for the Cumberland County Civic Center, but city leaders deflected the proposal when it became clear taxpayers would need to come up with another $46 million to make the project work.

But a 2000 plan called “A New Vision For Bayside,” developed by a city task force over nearly two years and countless community meetings, stuck when past proposals failed.

Portland Senior Planner Knowland said this plan can trace its success back to the involvement of community members in its formation.

“People in Bayside really made a major commitment to attending meetings,” Knowland said. “The people involved in that plan never forgot about that plan and kept pushing it forward.”

The plan called for Bayside to be transformed into a new “urban gateway” to the city, an “extension” of the bustling — but invisible from the highway — downtown shopping district. The vision included more multilevel parking structures to reduce the need for wide patches of pavement, consolidation of products and services in a walkable area, and housing for a wide range of income and age levels. The strategy document also called the scrap yards that had long defined the area “the single most inhibiting factor to the successful redevelopment of Bayside.”

Without the city’s approved and documented blueprint for the transformation of the neighborhood, Portland Economic Development Director Mitchell said, “[redevelopment] would have been piecemeal. It would have been a site here and a site there. … It would not have been as fast, it would not have been as cohesive, and it may not have happened at all.”

Bold steps, big investments

To change the neighborhood, the city stepped in and played an active role.

“Generally, the private sector isn’t going to invest millions of dollars unless they see investment from the city,” said Mitchell.

The city spent $800,000 to acquire land and extend Chestnut Street down to the main thoroughfare of Marginal Way to provide another outlet from the corridor and disperse traffic more evenly in the area. A similar plan to push Somerset Street, running parallel to Marginal Way, through an abrupt dead-end and into nearby Kennebec Street, is also in the works.

“Marginal Way was basically designed as a four-lane highway. That’s great for Interstate 295 and Franklin Arterial, but it’s not that great for pedestrians,” Knowland said.

“The goal is to take some of the traffic that would have used Marginal Way and move it onto Somerset Street,” said Mitchell.

Other city investments included nearly $1.8 million to purchase two former railway properties totaling nearly 9.5 acres in the heart of Bayside from the Maine Department of Transportation, and $1.62 million to acquire property elsewhere in the city and relocate New England Metal Recycling — one of Bayside’s prominent scrap yards — out of the neighborhood.

Another $2 million went into building a landscaped walking trail across a stretch of the former railroad corridor, and another $1.7 million over the past decade went into infrastructure improvements, such as sewer and road reconstructions.

The city’s investments triggered $14.5 million in federal grant funding over that same period, with $4.5 million in grants obtained to complete the aforementioned infrastructure projects and $1 million set aside for a possible relocation of the neighborhood’s remaining scrap yard, run by E. Perry Iron & Metal Co.

The remaining $9 million has been pledged to The Federated Cos. to build a parking garage as part of the development firm’s proposed Midtown project, a multiphased effort currently in the permitting process that — when complete — would cost nearly $90 million, feature four towers as high as 14 stories each including nearly 700 apartments and 90,000 square feet of retail space.

“The Federated project is really of a scale that could be a game-changer in terms of realizing the Bayside vision,” Mitchell said.

Midtown would be big, but it wouldn’t be the first private investment into Bayside since the city began spending on the neighborhood to turn it around. In fact, development in the former Portland “battlefield” had begun to snowball.

Nearly $100 million in other projects have popped up in the area over the past decade as well, including the $15 million Whole Foods Market, the $19 million Bayside Village student housing facility, a $4 million Gorham Savings Bank building and an $800,000 Trader Joe’s food store. Avesta Housing, using a variety of funding sources, has spent nearly $25 million on the two-phase so-called Pearl Place apartment complex.

Perhaps the most recognizable of Bayside’s new buildings is the 10-story, $26.5 million new home of the health care company InterMed, which consolidated five locations around Greater Portland into the one edifice in 2008.

“At an overall level, the move to Bayside has gone even better than anticipated,” InterMed CEO Daniel McCormack told the BDN. “From a business perspective, the visibility of the location has been terrific. I don’t think we ever anticipated how much visibility we would be able to get right there by 295. It’s interesting how many calls we get from new patients who specifically say they want to be at the Marginal Way office.”

To help motivate development, the city agreed to annual tax breaks worth as much as $355,000 for InterMed and $120,000 for the student housing facility. Mitchell said the development boom in Bayside has created more than $1 million new property tax revenue for the city, however.

Justin Alfond, now the Maine Senate President, opened the 12-lane Bayside Bowl in the former Alder Street home of Skillful Home Recreation, now on nearby Preble Street.

“Bayside is an eclectic place, a diverse place. It’s centrally located, and the Bayside vision was important to us,” Alfond said. “It was important that they had a plan, they had a vision, and for this part of the city that hadn’t been developed, to see how they wanted it developed.”

In accordance with the 2000 plan, Bayside now has places to shop, work, exercise, eat, listen to live music, recreate or get a check-up. As projects have been proposed, city planners have insisted that developers include widened brick sidewalks and, when possible — such as in the InterMed building and the proposed Midtown project — indoor parking.

“I can walk out my door and I can see my attorney, my eye doctor, I can go to a nice restaurant or a museum, and it’s all within walking distance, and that’s what people want,” said Spinella.

The former Bayside Neighborhood Association president acknowledged that the area is still known in part for being home to most of the city’s social services facilities, including the state’s largest overnight homeless shelter on Oxford Street, and some residents complain that the shelters attract panhandlers and substance abusers to the neighborhood even as it undergoes its renaissance.

“That’s been a challenge and we’re still working our way through it. Long-term, there’s always going to be a social service presence and there’s nothing wrong with that — the question is, how are you going to have a safe and thriving neighborhood around that presence,” said Spinella, who is employed as a social worker.

“We have seen a lot of people coming in to Bayside, especially from outside of the city, who have never been to Bayside before,” said Alfond. “We’re changing [the neighborhood], and we’re hoping we’ll attract more investment and more business in the community.”