It could be a year before the new development proposed for the former home of Century Tire is built in Portland, but in many ways the project is already a failure.
News broke this week that a broker with CBRE The Boulos Co. — whose parent company, CBRE, claims to be the largest commercial real estate firm on the planet — is marketing space in a “retail center” (read: strip mall) near the busy intersection of Forest Avenue and Marginal Way. The developer, Northland Enterprises, has secured letters of intent from two fast-food chains, Dunkin’ Donuts and Chipotle Mexican Grill, to “anchor” the strip mall, which has two other available spaces. A second building, located behind the strip mall and facing Kennebec Street, has reportedly drawn the interest of another “national retailer,” the identity of which the broker declined to disclose.
The project’s principal failure is a lack of imagination. Put yourself in the developers’ Louis Vuitton shoes for a minute. You want to build a new and unique retail space, a commercial development people will be excited about, and you decide to fill it with a slightly more upscale version of Taco Bell and a Dunkin’-freakin’-Donuts?
One would assume this market is already oversaturated with Dunkin’ locations. The one on the 500 block of Congress Street is about a half mile away from the strip mall’s proposed location. Another tenth of a mile down Congress, at 1 City Center, there’s another Dunkin’. A third Dunkin’, on St. John Street, is a mile away — Mapquest estimates it would take you about three minutes to get there from the strip mall. Maybe you came into town to catch a Sea Dogs game — there’s a Dunkin’ at Hadlock Field; or a Portland Pirates game — there’s a Dunkin’ inside the Cross Insurance Arena.
The Chipotle chain already has locations in Westbrook and South Portland. Though there isn’t one in Portland yet, there’s no shortage of places that serve burritos within a mile or so of the strip mall, most of which are just as fast and just as good (if not better and cheaper) than Chipotle — Hella Good Tacos, Taco Escobarr, Granny’s Burritos, Wild Burrito, and two Margaritas locations come to mind immediately. Add all the food trucks and carts that sell burritos, whose proprietors can set up shop even closer to Chipotle, and the burrito market can be said to be (pardon the pun) overstuffed.
It’s notable that these two chains are considered “anchor” tenants whose popularity will supposedly increase traffic to the other retail spaces in the strip. That designation is insulting to locals, most of whom are aware that there are better options nearby — unique businesses created by fellow Portlanders. It’s also notable that Boulos’ promotional brochure for the project includes a map of nearby retailers that conveniently omits several locally owned competitors, including The Holy Donut, on Park Avenue; the PeRx-U-Up Café at Apothecary by Design, located just steps away on Marginal; and Miss Portland Diner, a few steps farther down the street.
Granted, the location’s proximity to Interstate 295 makes its visibility and appeal to tourists and other visitors a selling point. But at least half those motorists (those arriving via 295 North) will soon appreciate that old Maine saying: “You can’t get there from here.” The off-ramp to the southbound lanes of Forest Avenue dumps those drivers off at a point where direct access to either Marginal Way or Kennebec Street is impossible — blocked by raised medians populated by panhandlers. To get to the strip mall, those drivers will have to continue on to Portland Street, hang a left at the light, then figure out which poorly paved side street on their left will bring them back down to Kennebec — a one-way street that runs in the wrong direction for those drivers along the strip mall’s triangular block.
Good luck to those visitors, and good luck to city planners who’ll have to figure out how traffic entering and exiting the strip mall can be safely routed at this busy and confusing intersection. The more drivers that patronize these chains, the more dangerous and maddening this intersection will become.
As for customers arriving on foot? Good luck with that, too. Almost no one walks around this barren, wind-swept, industrial area of Bayside. The concrete sea where Marginal Way meets Forest Avenue is one of the most pedestrian-unfriendly intersections in the city. If the “midtown” housing and retail development ever gets built a few blocks east, that could generate some walk-in business. But if your business plan is counting on that, your chance of success will be as marginal as your address.