A Portland newspaper columnist recently argued the city has an anti-growth mindset.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The reasoning drew on four development projects. Avesta’s and Seacoast Management’s are currently before the Planning Board; the Seacoast project will also require City Council approval. The other two, the so-called Midtown and Portland Co. projects, have been approved with modifications by both the Planning Board and council.
From this small sample the writer drew his incorrect conclusion, impugned the motives of those who objected to aspects of these projects, and went on to predict the city’s housing needs will not be met.
When developers (particularly those with large projects) don’t get everything they want, that’s not an anti-growth mindset at work.
It’s because these development projects often require a delicate balance of competing neighborhood, city and developer interests.
Responsible developers, city officials (and most observers) know and accept the fact that development compromises often need to be struck; that reasonable regulations, and conditions of approval need to be put in place. These steps protect us all; they are not indicative of an anti-growth mindset.
As one looks at these four projects, a less alarmist observer would note that the developers of the two largest projects (Midtown and the Portland Co.) are at this point unsure of the final shape of their undertakings. Neither has put precise final plans on the table.
In short, at this stage in the development approval process, the city has done its part; the developers have the approvals they need to move forward. Whether, when and how fast each of these projects unfolds is for the developer to decide; no anti-growth mindset impedes them.
Also clear is the fact that each of these approved projects will (when or if completed) contribute significantly to meeting city housing needs; they each contemplate between 250 and 350 new housing units.
The two projects whose applications are still pending, both of which are viewed favorably at this point in the approval process, will contribute more than 300 units to the stock of city housing.
More important is the larger housing development picture that has been quietly unfolding in the city over the last 10 years. In the last two years alone, 11 housing projects of 10 or more units (totaling nearly 400 units) have been approved by the Planning Board.
Five of the 11 are completed, three are under construction, three await only the finalization of development plans and financing. A larger number of small subdivision and housing projects under 10 units in size have been approved (another 100 housing units), and the majority of these projects are either completed or under construction.
If one goes back another few years it is clear that housing development helped pull Portland out of the recession: 49 projects of 10 or more units were approved. They ranged from special-needs housing to elderly and student housing (market rate and subsidized units), condo and rental units. Most of these projects at this point have been completed, and a handful are still under construction; only one was not built and the approval has now expired.
During this same period another 45 projects of less than 10 units in size were approved. Almost all of these projects have been completed. In total between 2006 and 2013 nearly 2,500 units of housing were built in the city of Portland. There was clearly no anti-growth or anti-housing mindset at work.
In short, the alarm that Portland is in the grip of an anti-growth mindset is rubbish.
Beyond the housing development described above, the Planning Board has approved and developers have built (and are building) tens of thousands of square feet of new office and retail space. Hotel and restaurant development is unprecedented, and whole new areas and types of development, along the Commercial Street waterfront west of the bridge and on Thompson’s Point, are unfolding.
Is there more that can and should be done? Certainly. Low-income and elderly housing needs have not yet been fully met. But we’re getting there.
The Planning Board and the City Council are housing-oriented, and rightly so. The housing development pace of the last nearly 10 years shows no sign of abating. We can and should paraphrase a British World War II exhortation: “Stay Calm and Keep Building, Sensibly.”
Orlando Delogu of Portland is emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a longtime public policy consultant to federal, state, and local government agencies and officials. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.