Merrill’s Wharf project nears completion

August 9, 2011 in Articles

Publication: Maine Biz
A second tenant will be joining law firm Pierce Atwood in the formerly gloomy brick building on Merrill's Wharf along the city's waterfront. Compass Health Analytics, a small health care consulting firm, will leave its Congress Street office this fall to move into the mid-19th-century building.

Anthony Gatti and his partners at Waterfront Maine, a development company based in Brunswick, have been rehabilitating the Cumberland Cold Storage building on the wharf since October, transforming it from an austere brick edifice with no windows to a sleek office building with views of the Fore River and city. The building is expected to be complete in September.

Waterfront Maine did not disclose its total investment, but the building's assessed value, currently $950,900, is expected to jump to around $12 million after the renovation is done, according to city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg. Last year, the city also gave Waterfront Maine a controversial $2.8 million tax break for the project, which in turn allowed it to give Pierce Atwood more competitive lease terms.

Gloria Pinza, managing partner at Pierce Atwood, says the firm will move next month from One Monument Square into the building's top three and a half floors, filling 70,000 square feet of the total 100,000 square feet. Gatti says Compass Health Analytics will rent 4,000 square feet on the second floor, leaving approximately 5,000 square feet available on that floor. The ground floor is still wide open. Broker Drew Sigfridson of CBRE/The Boulos Co. says he has had showings with a photography studio, restaurateurs, financial services firms and nonprofit marine-related organizations. Waterfront Maine has also rented slips to lobstermen alongside the building's parking lot.

"We'll be close to filling the empty space within the next six months," Sigfridson predicts.

While Merrill's Wharf undergoes big changes, the rest of the waterfront, which encompasses 14 private finger piers, the majority of the city's fishing fleet and multiple marine and non-marine businesses, has been quiet, despite sweeping zoning changes made by the city last year to help stimulate non-marine commercial activity.

In December, the city rezoned the waterfront central zone, letting landlords lease 45% of their ground floors to non-marine tenants if they failed to find a marine tenant in 60 days. Before that, pier owners were restricted to renting first floors to fishermen or fishery-related companies to protect waterfront workers from gentrification and displacement. The state's Department of Environmental Protection, which initially opposed the change, approved the new zoning in May.

About 10% of ground floor space in the waterfront central zone is vacant, according to a recent city survey, and 8% of roughly 23 to 24 acres of open land is empty as well, much of it concentrated near the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. The waterfront central zone stretches from the Maine State Pier to the International Marine Terminal.

City Planner Penny St. Louis says the soft economy is slowing the pace of change. "Yesterday's stock market is why we're seeing none," she said, referring to the lack of development. She says when the economy perks up, she expects more businesses will take advantage of the new zoning allowances.

And the renovated Cumberland Cold Storage building, which will bring 175 attorneys and their clients to the waterfront, could help spur development.

Charlie Poole, who owns Union Wharf next to Merrill's Wharf, says Pierce Atwood's long-term lease "can only be a good thing for all of the waterfront." But he says change will happen gradually. "The ordinance will in time allow properties with vacancies on the first floor to produce revenue," and motivate landlords to make physical improvements.

Poole was an advocate for loosening the zoning restrictions last year. "In a weakening economy and with fisheries dwindling, it allows [pier owners] to have revenue to continue to stay here," he says.

Waterfront Maine has owned the Cumberland Cold Storage building for 25 years. Gatti says his business partner, Coleman Burke, bought the building in 1986, turning it into a self-storage facility in 1993. The warehouse was originally built in the mid-1800s to store rum and molasses, and from the 1960s to 1970s, Gatti says it was used to store frozen goods coming in from ships. "It was very mundane looking," Gatti recalls. All the windows were blocked with concrete. "Nobody wanted to rent space from us." Now the building has 350 new windows and every Pierce Atwood attorney will have an office with a view.

While 30% of the building's space is still available, Gatti, like Sigfridson, is optimistic about the building's newfound appeal. "When you bring someone down here with no windows, and it looks like a war zone, people can't see it. Now there's a lot of interest," he says, adding, "It's been a long time coming."




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