New flood lines open options for Belfast Yards

Council proceeds cautiously with key waterfront property
By Ethan Andrews | Apr 18, 2017
Photo by: Ethan Andrews City officials are proceeding cautiously with plans for the waterfront lot known as Belfast Yards, which many see as a keystone in the redevelopment of Belfast's downtown and waterfront.

Belfast — New federal flood zone boundaries could bode well for the ongoing redevelopment of the waterfront, and in particular the city-owned property at 45 Front St. known as Belfast Yards.

Belfast Planner Wayne Marshall illustrated this to the City Council April 11 with several outdated concept sketches of the property showing a cluster of buildings elevated on stilts, 8 feet off the ground and wrapped in a wide deck.

The drawings showed what Belfast Yards might have looked like if it had been built two or three years ago. At the time, new buildings or major renovations were required to have enough clearance for a full ground floor — useless for just about anything but parking.

Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps indicate areas subject to a 1-percent risk of inundation each year. This unlikely scenario is sometimes referred to as a 100-year storm.

Insurance companies use FEMA maps to calculate flood coverage rates for shoreland properties, and municipalities use them to set building codes. Belfast adopted the new maps, but until recently the city was too consumed with other projects to consider the dramatic effect on Belfast Yards.

The 2015 maps hit Midcoast property owners unevenly. In Belfast, Marshall said, high water marks largely went down, while in Camden and Rockland they tended to creep upland. This wasn't the result of a mysterious oceanic phenomenon — the sea is not rising in some parts of Maine and receding in others. Rather, Marshall said, it's a byproduct of better mapping.

Where earlier boundaries were drawn from 10-foot topographic contours, the new ones use two-foot intervals, painting a more accurate picture of areas actually prone to flooding.

The low-lying north end of Front Street was affected more than any other area of the city, Marshall said. Here, the old flood lines are evident in buildings like Three Tides and the tug boat building at Marshall Wharf, which are raised substantially off the ground to clear the former high water mark.

Front Street Shipyard's largest building, known as Building 5, has louvers along its base to allow water to flow through the ground floor. A workshop at the north end required an elevated foundation when it was rebuilt on the footprint of the old sardine cannery. The same site, before Front Street Shipyard arrived, was eyed by a string of developers who pitched residential and retail complexes. In these, the ground floor invariably was set aside for parking.

Belfast Yards would have been similarly consigned to Stiltsville.

"I look at that as part of history, because we don't have to do that anymore," Marshall said.

On April 11, Marshall showed several new concept plans for how the property might one day be used. Overhead views showed what Belfast Yards would look like with a single large building ringed in parking, or with several small buildings bisected by a delivery corridor, possibly doubling as a pedestrian walkway. He emphasized that the drawings were only to demonstrate possible configurations of buildings on the site.

Councilors expressed an interest in seeing Belfast Yards become home to a number of small businesses with an older feeling versus a larger, modern development — a village of small Main-Street-style shops, not a car dealership or high-rise office building.

The property covers a little more than an acre and is the only city-owned commercial property on the waterfront. For this reason, city officials are treating it as a keystone between the commercial downtown and industrial waterfront that could affect the character of the city for decades to come.

Like its neighbor, Front Street Shipyard, Belfast Yards is under contract rezoning, through which the city keeps some control over what happens on the property. Unlike the shipyard, it is owned by the city, affording an additional layer of influence.

The question, Marshall said, is, "How do you make the best use of that acre of ground? Because we don't have any more acres. This is it."

Councilors at the April 11 work session urged taking it slowly and waiting for the right idea to materialize. However, on Marshall's recommendation, they informally voiced approval for paving a right-of-way from Front Street to the former Belfast Boatyard property and constructing on-street parking in front of Belfast Yards. The two projects will make use of some remaining money from a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields grant that was used to demolish an old railroad building that stood on the site and remove oil-soaked soil.

Today the property is a blank slate — an acre of flat dirt.

The council debated how much the city should state its intentions for Belfast Yards before asking developers for ideas. Councilor Mike Hurley recalled a near miss in the 1980s when the city solicited proposals to build on Heritage Park. The plan was nixed, but not before a feeding frenzy from developers who wanted to build high-end residences on the waterfront parcel.

"Until we know what we're asking, we shouldn't invite people in," Hurley said.

Mayor Walter Ash reminded the council that Front Street Shipyard might never have happened if earlier plans for condominiums and shops had gone through.

"That shipyard is known worldwide now, and it's a class A operation employing people and creating jobs," Ash said. "So, that's why I say we want to proceed with caution, because that's the last piece of land the city has down there."

Old federal flood guidelines would have required the Belfast Yards property, outlined in black, to be elevated to clear the upper reaches of flood waters, shown in light blue. On this map, the harbor is the dark blue area at the top. (Source: City of Belfast)
A pair of drawings show two of the many potential divisions of Belfast Yards. City officials have no specific designs on the property, but in early talks, councilors favored something akin to the smaller buildings shown in the top drawing versus the single large building of the bottom image. (Source: City of Belfast)
Until two years ago, construction in the low-lying waterfront area north of Main Street incorporated flood protection.The Marshall Wharf building, top, is elevated off the ground, while Front Street Shipyard's Building 5, bottom, has louvers to allow water to pass through the ground level of the industrial workshop. (Photo by: Ethan Andrews)
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