Policy Wonk: With Portland’s Midtown project, less can be more

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The paradoxical phrase “less is more” was coined by the renowned early 20th century architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Breaking with “bigger is better” architectural styles of the past, Mies van der Rohe emphasized form, shape, scale, design, use of new cost efficient materials. He argued that simplicity (“less”) could produce its own beauty and at the same time (“more”) interest, utility, and economic value.

Mies van der Rohe’s approach to architecture has subsequently been applied to many other fields of endeavor, for example, pollution control, meeting energy needs, city planning. The logic is simple: taking a step backward sometimes allows one to immediately take several steps forward.

The Federated Cos.’ Midtown project in Portland, probably without Mies van der Rohe’s one-liner squarely in mind, seems to have grasped the underlying principle.

Federated knew from the outset that the four high-rise residential towers faced widespread opposition. They knew, notwithstanding the Planning Board’s approval of their project, that opposition groups had every right under Maine law to challenge that approval.

More importantly, the early stages of the challenge process undoubtedly gave Federated a growing awareness that many of the contentions raised by opponents in their appeal of the board’s approval had real merit.

For example, the city’s Comprehensive Plan calls for major residential development to be on safer, up-slope areas in the Bayside neighborhood, not concentrated on the low-lying, federally designated storm-surge and flood-prone area where the Midtown project is proposed.

The Comprehensive Plan also calls for new residential development in Bayside to pay “careful attention to design, scale, density and variety … (to) strive to create a healthy and compatible neighborhood similar to other successful neighborhoods on the Portland peninsula.”

The high-rise Midtown project achieved none of these plan objectives and goals.

Other provisions in the Comprehensive Plan were either ignored or waived by the Planning Board; board requirements for timely and complete applicant submissions were ignored; in the rush to approval, board procedural requirements were ignored, and state statutory requirements relative to new construction in natural hazard areas were not met.

Even if one conjectures that all of these legal arguments opposing the board’s approval of the Midtown project could be overcome, Federated realized that it would take months or years for the courts to resolve the issues presented in the appeal. In the interim, construction could not begin.

Faced with these realities, and after consultation with city officials, the Planning Board, and opponents of the original Midtown project, Federated took a bold step – a “less-is-more” step.

In October 2014, Federated submitted to the Planning Board a significantly scaled-down project. Given the volume of materials already submitted in their original proposal, they hoped the board’s review process would not be lengthy, and that construction could begin early this year.

Opponents of the original Midtown project indicated they would not oppose this scaled-down project, and if it is approved would withdraw their appeal of the Planning Board’s approval of the original project. They, too, have bought into the “less-is-more” philosophy.

A win/win resolution of contentious land use issues, the commencement of construction on a major project furthering Bayside’s redevelopment seemed within reach.

Unfortunately, however, not everyone in City Hall or in the larger community sees the wisdom of Mies van der Rohe’s approach. Some have argued for the original Midtown project, notwithstanding the very real practical problems facing Federated.

They have characterized opponents of the original project as urban design purists doing the community a disservice. Their pejorative characterizations show an appalling lack of understanding of fundamental legal principles.

The right of citizens to challenge arguably impermissible governmental action (federal, state, or local) goes back nearly 250 years and is at the root of our democracy. These challenges often succeed. Recent cases have reversed a number of impermissible Portland decisions.

It is also clear that those who hold out for the original proposal have never read relevant portions of the city’s Comprehensive Plan, land use code and state statutes, or the appeal filed by those opposed to the original project. They do not know how far afield the Planning Board’s approval of the original proposal had gone.

In short, they do not grasp the realities Federated faces, that fighting the challenge to the board’s approval does not make legal or economic sense, and that a “less is more” strategy allows a scaled-down project to move forward within months.

Of course, the revised project must be fully vetted by the Planning Board, but one hopes the board and city bureaucrats will not delay or nit-pick this proposal to death with the hope original project will somehow be revived. It won’t be.

Federated has made its decision, a prudent “less-is-more” decision. The company has said “We think the (present) project in many respects is better than the previous submission.”

If the city dawdles we could lose this valuable project. What an absurd waste of everyone’s time and money that would be.

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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 orlando.delogu@maine.edu.

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