A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Downtown's changing geography

The great recession is having all sorts of impacts on our city's geography - what are we going to do with all the abandoned auto dealerships, for instance? - but one of the big changes to come was announced yesterday, when the new owners of the Portland Press Herald announced their plan to sell their building and the adjacent empty lot that used to house the printing presses to a New York developer.

The developer, a fellow named John Cacoulidis who's probably best known in Maine for his attempted tax-revolt hissy fits against the town of Cumberland, where he owns an offshore island, plans to renovate the Press Herald office building for office space and to redevelop the entire block bound by Pearl, Cumberland, Congress, and Myrtle with a new, 30-story tower. From this morning's Press Herald article:

His vision calls for a basement-level parking garage, with retail shops, a pharmacy and a bank on the first floor. He would top that with another eight levels of parking and build a hotel and office space above that.

The article also has this quote from Cacoulidis: "It will be a really classy building."

On that point, I have my doubts. Cacoulidis also owns a large chunk of land on South Portland's Spring Point. About eight years ago, this is the "really classy" building he proposed to build there:

You probably guessed "casino," right? Not quite: it would be a massive, hangar-sized convention hall - big enough to hold aircraft indoors was the gimmick, hence the plane being towed inside on the tongue-like ramp in the image above - capped by a plastic surgery hospital, capped by twin 640-foot towers with hotel rooms inside. I seem to recall Cacoulidis saying that famous people would want to recuperate for a few months in the luxury hotel upstairs after their plastic operations. I'm not sure why he wanted to disguise the whole complex so it would look exactly like a 1970s-era Las Vegas casino - maybe to throw off the paparazzi?

And oh yeah - it would have been connected by an aerial tram strung across the harbor to downtown Portland:

I guess this would have gone somewhere near the Portland Company complex. These images come via plans2pictures.com.

Anyhow, as classy as these buildings may be, I do have some serious concerns about whether Cacoulidis is capable of envisioning a building that will fit into the context of Congress Street. His grandiose plans for South Portland seem to expect that most people would have arrived at his building by air - note the preponderance of aircraft like helicopters in the images above. That probably sounds good to an elderly multi-millionaire like the developer, but Congress Street's buildings need to engage the street, and be designed with the expectation that most visitors and workers will be arriving by foot, on the sidewalk.

More practically, though, is the question of whether Cacoulidis is for real. In the past decade, he's made some big real estate purchases here. But in spite of his grandiose plans, he's never built anything. His property in South Portland is still empty, used only as an illegal dumping site from time to time. His newly-bought Press Herald office building is going to be empty soon - where's he going to find new tenants for that building, much less for a 30-story tower? I have my doubts about whether Cacoulidis can live long enough to see his vision turn into a reality.


Corey Templeton said...

I also doubt that anything will really come of this, especially based on the owner's previous big idea in South Portland. I love tall buildings but first and foremost whatever is built here should be truly urban in nature.

We may still have the 'top of the old port' parking lot/black hole for the next century but this lot next to City Hall has a lot of potential, too. It is literally in the center of the peninsula and close to mass transit, population centers, and all types of local attractions.

Festoonic said...

He'll be broke soon enough. No one that stupid remains obscenely rich for long. If he's really, really lucky someone will successfully document his decline and fall as a reality show. Huzzah for the creative economy!