State and city officials voiced their support Thursday for a proposal to raise building heights on Portland’s western waterfront to encourage construction of a cold storage facility on state-owned land next to the International Marine Terminal.

“It is critical not just for Portland, but for Maine’s entire food economy,” Maine Port Authority Chairman Jon Nass told the city Planning Board after a tour of the site.

But West End residents lined up for a chance to tell the board that a warehouse doesn’t need to be as tall as the Casco Bay Bridge to be profitable.

“When I tell people it’s the size of the bridge,” said Pete Baxter of Summer Street, shaking his head. “When you stand at my house and look, it’s huge.”

The debate has come to the planning board from the city planning department, which is making the application for the height increase on behalf of both the Maine Port Authority and Americold, a national warehouse company that already has one city storage facility and wants to build another that would need to be 68 feet tall on a lot between International Marine Terminal and Portland Yacht Services.

The zoning change would increase the maximum building height from 45 feet to 50 feet, and 75 feet under certain conditions. While triggered by Americold’s proposal, the change also would allow other companies to develop in the same zone, including Portland Yacht Services, which would like to have a building tall enough to service ferries and other large boats.

For Americold, the height is necessary to compete with Boston area warehouses, city Waterfront Director Bill Needelman said. He cited a consultant’s study that predicted Americold needed the vertical space to pack enough pallets inside to be able to charge rates low enough to compete with Boston and still be profitable. But that didn’t sit well with residents at the workshop.

A rendering of the proposed cold-storage facility (large building with white roof) on Portland’s waterfront. The existing Portland Yacht Services facility is to the right.

Sonia Robertson, a 41-year Danforth Street resident, jumped up to be the first of a long line of Portland residents to speak against the proposed increase. Like others in her group, Portlanders for the Western Waterfront, Robertson said she is in favor of a cold storage facility, but doesn’t think it needs to be so big. It could meet local and state needs without such a negative impact on Portland residents, she said.

“The majority of support comes from zip codes beyond 04102,” Robertson told the board. “You have heard from the voice of government. You’ve heard from the voices of industry. You’ve heard from the voices of consultants.” Tapping an opposition petition with more than 750 signatures, Robertson said: “Now these are the voices of Portland, and they need to be heard.”

The city’s urban designer, Caitlin Cameron, revealed one new development during her presentation. In preparation for the workshop, city staff created some simulations to show proposed building heights from different vantage points around the city. The potential impact on the view from the Harbor View Memorial Park is significant, she said, and that prompted officials to suggest consideration of an amendment to protect the park’s views.

Portland’s waterfront coordinator, Bill Needelman, provides information to Portland Planning Board members and others during Thursday’s tour of the waterfront site where Americold is proposing a cold-storage facility. Photo by Carl D. Walsh

The planning board conducted a site walk of the property Thursday afternoon that drew about 50 people. Needelman and John Henshaw, the Maine Port Authority director, noted the empty stretch of waterfront land west of the Casco Bay Bridge where Americold wants to build, and walked the group over to Portland Yacht Services to get some sense of a scale.

The planning board will probably hold at least one more workshop before it schedules a public hearing on the proposal. The board is unlikely to vote on the proposal anytime soon.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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