$250M?!

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PORTLAND, Maine — In 2023, a visitor to Portland walks out the front door of his Commercial Street hotel. He may turn left to grab dinner at any number of eateries along the waterfront, or ascend to a rooftop bar for a drink looking over Casco Bay.

To get back whence he came, this visitor may have two new options: Walk to the other end of Commercial Street and into the new downtown train station, or take an aerial tram to the Portland International Jetport and hop a flight.

Welcome to future Portland.

Based on the bold predictions of local leaders interviewed by the BDN in recent weeks, this may be the picture for Maine’s largest city.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to predict in 10 years a billion dollars of new construction [in the downtown], ” said Christopher O’Neil, a Portland Community Chamber consultant. “I think it can be done. I don’t see that building happening overnight, but being like a wildfire that catches on, with hopefully lots of funky architecture and lighting that reflects Portland’s eclectic nature. I think we could have 90, 000 people living in Portland 10 years from now.”

That influx could be felt from Fort Kent to Kennebunk.

Greater Portland today generates more than half of the state ’s economic output and one-third of its jobs.

Now, with a dozen high-profile development projects proposed or under construction and city officials leading a planning exercise to gather public comment on any redevelopment of the 15-block India Street neighborhood at the base of Munjoy Hill, Portland faces a critical period in its evolution.

The city has a population of about 66, 000. The biggest 10-year jump in population Portland has ever seen, according to the U.S. Census, came between 1890 and 1900, when the city grew from just more than 36, 000 people to slightly more than 50, 000. In 1950, Maine’s largest city hit its highest census mark with nearly 78, 000 residents.

If O’Neil’s right, Portland in 2023 would set new population records for the state. The nonprofit economic development group Creative Portland Corp. previously set a more modest population growth goal of 10, 000 more people in a decade. Either prediction would represent a significant increase.

“I think we should be glad people want to come and live in Portland, and we need to find a place in the community for everybody who wants to be here, ” said Mayor Michael Brennan.

“Portland’s going to be more urban in the future, ” said City Councilor David Marshall. “I think it’s going to be a new golden age for the city.”

Tim Soley, president of Portland-based commercial real estate firm East Brown Cow Management Inc., said with such population growth comes new vitality.

“You’ll get the urban density, you’ll get the quality of life of places being open longer hours and the diversity of offerings, ” he said. “You’ll start seeing some more retail chains, like we’re getting now with Urban Outfitters and Starbucks. Some people may complain about that, but it means you’re getting a diversity of people. If you have all just small boutique stores, they can be more expensive and alienate some of the people you really do want to have in the downtown.”

Projects already proposed

Some of the sights on a hypothetical tour of Portland in the year 2023 are foreseeable based on what’s already been proposed and — in some cases — construction is already underway. Portlanders are eminently aware of the $150 million, four-tower Midtown retail and housing complex plotted for the Bayside neighborhood, as well as the $100 million project lined up for Thompson’s Point, featuring a sports arena, office space and one of five new hotels planned for construction or expansion.

If the Midtown project is permitted and built, it will double the number buildings in Portland with more than 14 stories from four to eight.

“Driving along [Interstate] 295, Portland may look very different than it does today, ” said Charles Colgan, one of the state’s best-known economists and a professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. “There are going to be a couple of new towers. Thompson’s Point may be another real development hotspot. The people looking at that place have imagined an extremely ambitious project for that area.”

On Thompson’s Point — which as the city’s welcome mat to the south currently is home to undeveloped grounds and old industrial warehouses — developers from Forefront Partners I hope to build a venue for professional basketball team the Maine Red Claws, as well as at least two office buildings, a hotel and a sports medicine facility. Developers have dialed back the pace of their construction in recent weeks, proposing to build fewer parts of the project in the first phase but still transform the point over the long haul.

Other stops on a future tour of the city include a new transportation hub, which could transform Portland’s landscape. One source envisioned the return of a railroad station near the site of the 110-year-old Grand Trunk Office Building at the base of India Street, where train-riding visitors from Boston could step directly out onto tourist-friendly Commercial Street.

The Amtrak Downeaster currently unloads passengers on the city’s outskirts, a taxi ride away from the shops and restaurants tourists seek.

“There’s a vision of that [downtown train station] happening, ” said landscape architect and urban planner Mitchell Rasor, who worked with city officials and area residents on an exercise envisioning the future of the India Street neighborhood. “Some people say that’s a little ‘pie in the sky, ’ but if that were to happen, that would be huge. … That would be quite dynamic for the city. That would be truly amazing, urban transportation infrastructure.”



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