PORTLAND, Maine — In a city where tall building proposals have become a point of heated debate in recent months, city leaders this week quietly almost doubled the allowable structure heights for one of Portland’s most visible properties.

But while projects including tall buildings in other parts of the city have stirred up controversy — as opponents decry what they consider massive structures out-of-character in the otherwise largely squat Portland — a 9-0 City Council vote Monday night to increase height limitations on Thompson’s Point from 65 feet to 120 feet did not attract a murmur of opposition.

The council also waived a density requirement for that site that prevented developers from building more than 60 residential units per acre, opening the doors to taller and more densely packed buildings as part of a high-profile development proposed for Thompson’s Point.

The additional flexibility granted by the council Monday only applies to applicants who receive the city’s master development plan designation for their projects, and Thompson’s Point Development Co. Inc. is pursuing that status.

The $105 million project, known as the Forefront at Thompson’s Point, will include an event center, outdoor concert venue, cultural center, parking garage, two office buildings, at least one restaurant, a sports medicine lab and a hotel, among others.

In the city’s Bayside neighborhood, a mixed-use project that is proposed to ultimately include four 165-foot-tall towers has spurred such passionate debate that two citizens groups — one for and one against the development — have formed to parry over it.

Earlier during the same Monday night meeting at which city councilors approved the additional building heights for Thompson’s Point, they heard forceful opposition to a separate motion that will allow another developer to build five feet taller than the previous 45-foot height cap on Munjoy Hill.

But when councilors later took up a motion to accommodate taller, more densely packed buildings on Thompson’s Point, it passed unanimously and with little fanfare. Only local resident Steven Scharf took the lectern during the time for public comment, briefly urging the council to approve the changes and expressing surprise he was the only one to acknowledge them, considering the firestorm that had accompanied building height changes elsewhere.

Like the four-tower Midtown project in Bayside, the high-profile Thompson’s Point project is seen as a major change for one of the city’s most recognizable properties, a 30-plus-acre Fore River peninsula that serves as Portland’s welcome mat to highway drivers from the south.

According to a memo distributed to city councilors by Portland senior planner Bill Needelman, the new height allowances are expected to factor in the construction of an 80-foot-tall parking garage, a 120-foot-tall hotel and a 120-foot-tall office building. All three structures were previously drawn up to be 65 feet in height. Another residential building and a mixed residential-retail building are also included in the updated project plans, but Needelman did not identify them in particular as candidates to be 120 feet tall.

“The requested amendments, both for taller buildings and higher density residential development, will allow the Forefront to decrease the size of building footprints, allowing greater open space,” reads a description of the project proposals distributed by city staff to the council in advance of Monday’s meeting. “Additionally, higher density allowances promote the preservation of historic, rail-era buildings, which are lower density structures than the new construction previously approved.”

The project was first unveiled by developers more than two years ago and was approved by the Planning Board in June 2012, but little progress on the ambitious project has been publicly perceptible. Initial plans for a concert venue at the site have been dropped and a sports arena — which would eventually house the city’s professional basketball team, the Maine Red Claws — has been pushed back to a later phase of the development.

In August, the startup Circus Conservatory of America — billed as the nation’s first college of the circus arts — was named an anchor tenant for the project alongside the Red Claws, a Developmental League affiliate of the Boston Celtics.

A real estate broker involved with the sale of the site has said a tenant has also been lined up for one of the office buildings — a 175,000-square-foot structure — in the project, but he has declined to name the tenant.

According to a report by economist Chuck Lawton of the research group Planning Decisions, the project when completed will generate $31.3 million in new annual sales for Maine businesses, 455 permanent jobs and $11 million in yearly wages.

During construction, the development will additionally support 1,230 jobs and $49 million in wages.


Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.