Interviewee: William Needelman

Role: Waterfront Coordinator for the City of Portland, Maine

Date of Interview: December 5, 2014

Collection: Preserving the Working Waterfront

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William Needelman Interview

Abstract: William (Bill) Needelman, Waterfront Coordinator for the City of Portland, Maine discusses the context and evolution of waterfront zoning in the city. During the 1980s, a condominium boom threatened to change the identity of Portland's working waterfront. Mr. Needelman discusses the subsequent moratorium on all non-marine development along Portland’s waterfront and the 1992 Waterfront Alliance report that was used to inform the development of waterfront zoning and regulation. Portland’s waterfront zoning law which provides strong protection for commercial berthing also enables high-end retail uses to help subsidize pier improvements. This has become a model for the nation. Mr. Needelman shares the city’s experiences in implementing zoning regulations that enable both non-marine uses and traditional marine activity along an urban waterfront.

Transcript: I am Bill Needelman. I'm the Waterfront Coordinator for the City of Portland, Maine. I started working with the City back in 1999 coming in as a part-time planner and because I was a Portland resident and my grandfather had always done boats and my family had ties to the Casco Bay Islands I was kind of a wharf rat as a kid, I just knew the geography of Portland's waterfront.

The waterfront is the defining feature of the community; it's Portland. And back in the 1980s when there were risks imposed on our waterfront by non-marine development the slogan was keep the port in Portland. It is a character defining value and ethic for the City––is to retain an authentic port character, authentic port activities, at the same time as we evolve into a post-industrial city.

I think a second important aspect is that the downtown of Portland is tightly integrated with the waterfront. The piers are literally roads to the water and they connect to the street grid of the City in a seamless way. The piers are part of the City and that impacts our identity as a coastal community.

Back in the mid–1980s people were responding to the condominium developments, the idea of gated communities on Portland's waterfront. The fact that these gated communities were also displacing long-standing active marine uses--rubbed them the wrong way. And the citizens of Portland literally rose up with referendum, placing a moratorium on all non-marine development along Portland's waterfront. It was a first of its kind for this part of the country. The values of the City expressed themselves in a way that was really contrary to their own financial self-interest

But many of the piers began a period of disinvestment because the value of the marine industries which were protected did not support the types of expensive investments necessary to maintain marine infrastructure. The pier owners who were legitimately asking for the tools necessary to invest in this critical infrastructure, coming together again with other industry folks from both the marine side and the retail and tourism side, so it was an alliance of disparate groups--not just alliance of folks who all agreed with each other at the onset. And that provided an opportunity for mutual learning. And the Waterfront Alliance now 30 years later is still an ongoing concern. It still meets monthly.

The 1992 report, the Waterfront Alliance Report laid out conditions, where working waterfront uses would be preserved but not non-marine uses would be allowed to the extent that they were compatible and promoted investment in marine infrastructure. And that's still the guiding principle and the policies that the City has adopted. The latest iteration of zoning in our central waterfront allowed for the tenancy of first floors and some of the open spaces on piers to go to non-marine use, but limited by percentage.

There are ways to allow waterfronts to evolve without it always being about winning and losing. You know to allow for a non-marine use does not mean you need to give up your traditional marine activity. But the only way to increase the size of the pie is through good design and thoughtful accommodation from both sides.

Each community needs to find out what they care about and then draft the policies and then dig through the zoning because to just jump right in and think that zoning is going to be a mechanism to solve their problems, it probably won't. That's good planning but it's also a step that is often overlooked. People want to get directly to solutions and you need to do the time and the work, the difficult work of understanding what a community values before you start to regulate it.

This collection is part of an effort to document oral histories that focus on the application of specific tools for sustaining working waterfronts across the country. To learn more about the Preserving the Working Waterfront Oral History project, click here.