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What's So Special About Portland's Working Waterfront?

A few years ago, the American Planning Association highlighted Portland's Commercial Street, which runs alongside the harbor from Merrill's Marine Terminal in the west to the Old Port district in the east, as one of America's "Great Streets.". On the inland side of the street are a typically downtown mix of vegan bakeries and high-end tailor shops, offices and hotels: a vibrant and varied mix, but not all that much different from the rest of downtown Portland.

But on the other, waterfront side of Commercial Street there are fish processing facilities, chandleries, and lobster pounds, and a couple (relatively) inexpensive seafood dives. This is the city's legendary "working waterfront," where some of the city's most valuable real estate — with downtown proximity and stunning harborfront views — has been set aside for low-rent marine industries like boat repair, fishing, and seafood processing.

Over the years, lots of developers have wanted to displace Portland's lobster boats with condos and hotels, which, they promised, could have brought dozens of millionaires downtown and pumped new tax revenue into City Hall.

Instead, the city has repeatedly made it clear that new development that's incompatible with marine industries is not welcome here. While policies have evolved over the years, the goals remain the same: to preserve affordable berths for working vessels, and affordable workspace and warehouses for the businesses that support them.

As a result, we don't have gated communities on our harborfront. And contrary to the rueful promises of the slick tanning booth enthusiasts who tried to build luxury hotels and apartments on the water, our economy really hasn't suffered for it.

Quite the contrary: because the waterfront is still a place where people can find hard work, and lobster boats, and great seafood fresh off the boat, the city as a whole is much richer. I was reminded of the working waterfront's value once again last week, when the Chicago Tribune ran a travel piece about Portland that highlighted our "still-working waterfront where gulls squawk and circle overhead." The article continues:


"It's not so difficult to have that old charm when your town's engine is what it was when founded in 1786: the docks. Portland's long, salty docks still teem with stacks of lobster traps, the hulking ships that catch the nation's seafood, and businesses boasting, 'Fishing Maine waters for over 100 years.' They're open and free for your perusal and offer classic no-frills dining spots such as J's Oyster, which serves fish straight out of the ocean and appears to have been redecorated approximately never during its 36-year existence."

The working waterfront makes Portland unique: it makes our city worth visiting, and it enriches the lives of everyone who lives here. Here, in the heart of our city, is a place that attracts visitors and residents alike to engage with and appreciate the value of our oceans, and the people who work them. The working waterfront is a pure and authentic expression of our city's hardworking, egalitarian spirit.


Photo: Hobson's Wharf, by Flickr user Timothy Valentine.

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