Architectural rendering of the proposed J.B. Brown project on Free Street.
Two developers are looking to redevelop three surface parking lots with projects that could dramatically alter Portland’s downtown landscape.
North River IV has submitted a “Portland Square” master plan that would transform about two city blocks, totaling 6.5 acres between Spring and Commercial streets, into a mix of offices, apartments, retail stores, hotels and parking garages. And J.B. Brown & Sons has proposed a six-story apartment building at 40-46 Free St.
The proposals come at an increasingly tenuous time for development in Maine’s largest city. Portland officials are trying to address concerns of fishermen who say that summertime traffic on Commercial Street is making it difficult to access the working waterfront and move perishable seafood off the piers.
Construction costs also are spiking, driven by a labor shortage and increases in the price of building materials, disrupting some development plans.
North River IV is a limited liability company controlled by Steven Honig, an attorney with an office on 12th Avenue in New York City, according to the Maine Secretary of State’s Office. The company, an affiliate of Waterfront Maine, bought the property four years ago for $66 million.
The company, whose members include Peter Pachios, Adam Meyers and Dan Jacques, is being represented by Patrick Carroll of Carroll Associates.
“This project represents full development of a crucial parcel of land in the Old Port,” Carroll said in a letter to planners made public Wednesday. “Upon completion, this project will complete a strong link between the Old Port and the adjacent western neighborhoods that has been missing since the mid-1980’s.”
The developer has applied for a master development plan for the surface lots bounded by Spring, Commercial, Center, Cotton and Cross streets. That plan would lock in a development program, including uses and square footage, for up to 10 years. But each building phase would undergo separate site plan reviews.
Other projects to have received master development plans in Portland include the former Portland Co. at 58 Fore St., Hobson’s Landing at the former Rufus Deering Lumber Co. on Commercial Street, Thompson’s Point and the defunct Midtown project on Somerset Street.
North River IV, which owns and operates properties in seven other states besides Maine, is proposing nearly 290,000 square feet of new office space, about 35,600 square feet of retail space, 76 one-bedroom apartments, a 135-room hotel and structured parking for 1,336 vehicles.
The new development would add to significant office and retail space already located at One Portland Square and Two Portland Square, bringing those totals to 550,000 square feet and 48,000 square feet, respectively.
The hotel is the same project proposed this year by Jim Brady of Fathom Co., which already has been approved by the city’s Historic Preservation Board and is pending site plan review before the Planning Board.
Sandra Guay, an attorney representing a group of concerned fishermen, said she has not discussed the Portland Square project with her clients. But she pointed to a memo previously sent to the Planning Board about Brady’s hotel project, which was known to be part of a larger development proposal.
In it, Guay expressed concern that cumulative traffic impacts of the Portland Square development were not being reviewed or released. She also was concerned that the hotel project was progressing before the city has completed a study of traffic improvements along Commercial Street.
“The reality is that the marine industry is being brought to a standstill on Commercial Street,” Guay wrote. “It simply cannot continue to operate in Portland with the steady, cumulative increased traffic and any such proposed additional traffic should not be casually added to an already failing condition without a final, approved and fully functional Commercial Street Operations Plan.”
The Portland Square proposal would would create 1,336 spaces, a combination of underground and above-ground parking, replacing surface parking lots that can now accommodate 542 vehicles.
Seven parking levels – two underground and five above – are proposed for the lot at Spring, Cotton and Cross streets. The above-ground parking would be wrapped in retail spaces. Two office towers would be built above the parking, reaching another four or five stories and creating 200,000 square feet of Class A office space.
The existing park and plaza between the parking lot and the One Portland Square and Two Portland Square office buildings would remain.
Three parking levels – one below and two above – are proposed for the lower lot at Fore, Center and Cross streets and would also be wrapped in retail. Another 82,000 square feet of office is planned for that site, as well as a four-story apartment complex.
“A critical, defining element of the project will be a pedestrian street/plaza that runs through the center of the lower site, extending the visual and physical connection of Cotton Street, and ending with a grand public stair connecting to the Commercial Street sidewalk,” Carroll wrote.
Jeff Levine, the city’s Planning and Urban Development director, said the Planning Board could conduct its initial review of the proposal as soon as May 28. And the future buildout of the properties is part of the city’s study to improve traffic on Commercial Street, he said.
The North River IV proposal comes as the city’s Historic Preservation Board began reviewing another development project about a block away.
J.B. Brown & Sons purchased the 100-vehicle surface parking lot on Free Street two years ago from the city for about $1.5 million. The sale allowed the city to acquire two parcels owned by J.B. Brown on Canco Road that was used to complete the relocation of its Public Works Department out of Bayside.
The Free Street project would include five ground-floor retail spaces and 51 apartments. The company had previously received city approvals to develop 63 apartments at York and High streets, but ended up selling them as condominiums.
J.B. Brown CEO and President Vincent Veroneau said the decision to build apartments stems from the fact that new, market-rate apartments haven’t been built since 2017. And he said owning rental housing downtown is a long-term plan to diversify the company’s holdings.
“On a long-term basis, we think it makes economic sense,” Veroneau said.