Opinion: Zoning "Loophole" Allows for Double-Height Buildings at 58 Fore St.

Following its submission to the City of Portland on September 21st, CPB2, a Delaware-incorporated LLC hosted a presentation of the ambitious Master Development Plan for 58 Fore St. Tuesday evening. The meeting was held on the property itself in a space at building 6 of the former Portland Company Complex. City code requires that property owners within 500 feet of the proposed development and residents on an "interested parties list" be invited to participate in such a neighborhood meeting.

A lively Q&A session followed the presentation and revealed some sleight of hand on the part of the development company. Munjoy Hill attorney Barbara Vestal asked Brady "what loop hole" he was relying on to have passed through zoning with buildings much taller than the existing zoned height limit of 45 feet (with extensions to 55 feet), referring to the massive 9-story waterfront-facing Blocks 5 and 6. Brady explained the method used to measure above-grade height which is to take a perimeter of the building in question and a number of sample points for height to determine an average.

Brady then revealed that CPB2 was able to get the city to consider Blocks 4, 5, and 6 (comprising more than half the footprint of the site) as a single building due to their being joined by underground parking. Because of this, the 35-foot height restriction of the large Block 4 entity fronting Fore St. factored into the average height of the "building" comprised by Blocks 4, 5, and 6, allowing nearly 100-foot water-facing elevations.

The Portland City Council mandated a maximum height of 45 feet from the B5 and B6 blocks in July of last year.

For purposes of averaging the building height, the City of Portland recognizes parcels B4, B5, and B6 as one building due to attached underground parking. This allows for 35' fronting Fore St. and nearly 100' elevations facing the water. B2 is the historic core and B7 represents the proposed 13-acre marina.

Another Munjoy Hill resident questioned Brady on his intent to provide 10% workforce housing as required by the City, noting that CPB2 had been quoted in the media as saying he may simply pay the fine rather than incorporate units for lower-income residents. Brady responded that he may still take that route and noted the fine goes toward housing benefits in Portland and indicated either way was a wash for local workforce housing. One of the company's eight "Guiding Principles" early in the evening's presentation was to "Provide a diverse housing supply".

A representative from the Maine Department of Transportation challenged Brady on his claim that the 50-foot "rail and trail" easement that bisects the plan's footprint could be used retroactively to accommodate any future rail traffic leading from Portland to points north. Brady seemed uncertain on the point but stated CPB2 was "charging ahead" and would not "wait around for something that might happen someday".

Others in attendance raised concerns about construction noise, impact to vehicular traffic on Munjoy Hill, carbon emissions, projected sea level rise, and the changing face of the Hill as seen from the water.

Mr. Brady led the event which was well attended; the roughly 75 chairs filled early and about 75 others stood or sat on the floor of the so-called "Room with a View". Representatives from local and state government, media, and the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization mixed with neighbors, realtors, and other interested parties to hear the high level overview of the proposed development plan.

Drawing almost exclusively from pages of the submitted plan, Brady presented a 35-slide presentation outlining the fundamentals of the proposal. He made it clear that now is not the time to get into the weeds with details of architecture, retail tenants, residential demographics or specific construction elements, these would come when the 'level three site plan' was prepared just prior to the corresponding phase of construction. Brady also drove home the fact that 58 Fore St. development will come in multiple phases, "between three and six" being likely.

In addition to the clear goal of excluding site-plan level of detail from the evenings conversation, citing negative feedback he has received on the architectural renderings recently released, Brady wanted to communicate the intent of the development partners to reinvigorate the historic buildings on the site and to create a new neighborhood that leveraged waterfront access and the public use afforded by potential development of the City's neighboring Amethyst Lot.

The next step in the CPB2 plan is a joint Planning and Historic Preservation Board workshop on October 12th which will be held at City Hall and will be open to the public. Following this will be separate individual Planning and Historic Preservation Board meetings to be announced.


Nick Johnson is a Portland-based writer & blogger living on Munjoy Hill. He also serves on the Board of the Directors of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, the parent entity of the Munjoy Hill Observer.