Commercial Street: Portland, Maine


Commercial Street in Portland, Maine, blurs the distinctions among working waterfront, downtown main street, and historic tourist district. It is a place where moored fishing boats, lobster pots and fishing gear, and crying seagulls mix with downtown office employees going to work, residents living in dockside condominiums, and tourists visiting restaurants and boutique shops. It's a dynamic yet precariously balanced amalgam crafted through years of debate and compromise.

One of APA's top 10 Great Streets in America for 2008, Commercial Street stands out for its unique character, strong sense of place, and mixture of uses involving marine and fishing industries, tourism, retail trade, commercial offices, and residential housing.

Commercial Street runs the length of Portland's working waterfront located adjacent to Maine's largest downtown. Photo courtesy Bill Needelman, AICP.

Planning Excellence

For more than 125 years the role Commercial Street played as the main thoroughfare for Portland, Maine's working waterfront was never questioned. The street was built on top of old piers, and fill was pushed into Casco Bay during the early 1850s to accommodate major railroad development and associated warehousing along the Fore River.

From the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, however, changes in the fishing and marine transportation industries made it increasingly uneconomical for the privately owned wharves and piers along the street to continue serving only maritime trades. New development included offices, condominiums, and other non-marine uses. By 1987, residents had seen enough and approved a five-year moratorium on non-marine development along the waterside of Commercial Street and its docks.

Delineating the border of Portland's shopping center, affectionately referred to as "the Old Port," the street boasts wide clay brick sidewalks, granite curbs, storefronts with upper-floor living quarters, and office buildings. There's also public art nearby, such as a steel globe armillary depicting nautical themes, and the private fish sculpture attached to an industrial building at the Portland Fish Pier.

The street's historic architecture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries was protected when the area was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and by a Historic Preservation Ordinance adopted by the city.

The privately owned and operated wharves that adjoin Commercial Street — more than a dozen altogether — are a source of much community pride, contributing to Portland's image as a self-reliant and viable seaport. The statewide debate about preserving the city's working waterfront that led to the 1987 moratorium, however, was only the start.

Current zoning works to achieve an effective balance between marine and non-marine uses. Photo courtesy Bill Needelman, AICP.

In the early 1990s formerly rival factions of pier owners, activists, city councilors, business owners, and others joined together and formed the Waterfront Alliance. Through a collaborative effort, the alliance produced a policy document in 1992 that suggested a new zoning approach for the waterfront. The alliance then worked with city council, the mayor, and city staff to draft zoning that was adopted in 1994. It allows limited commercial uses on the piers and wharves so owners have a certain amount of financial stability at the same time the needs of the fishing and lobster industry and Portland's identity as a New England seaport are addressed.

Since its approval, the zoning has been constantly refined. Although a state coastal program had been in existence since 1978, Portland provided the testing grounds for working waterfront protection. In 2005, the state adopted tax incentives for working waterfronts as a statewide policy. If Portland wants to relax the zoning standards, changes must be approved by the state.

"For a situation as complex as this [the] result is complicated and unloved rules, but it is the only thing we have found that has worked," said city planner Bill Needelman. "With development along Commercial Street, it's all a balancing act."

Besides pier and wharf development being financed privately, the city has implemented a tax increment financing program for infrastructure repairs, improvements, and outreach programs along the street and waterfront. Unfortunately, the fiscal demands of Portland's general fund have limited use of this tool.

Despite the controversy and public discussions about more recent changes, Commercial Street remains just as important to the city and its waterfront today as it was when first built more than 150 years ago.

Current zoning works to achieve an effective balance between marine and non-marine uses. Photo courtesy Bill Needelman, AICP.