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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors on Monday night expressed support for the final draft of the Mill Creek Master Plan.
But some recognized a need to consciously adapt to effects of revitalization, like with affordable housing.
The Mill Creek neighborhood extends from E Street to Broadway, and is bordered by Cottage Road and the Casco Bay Bridge. The desire to improve it and the nearby Knightville neighborhood, in conjunction with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, has been in the works since the 1980s.
The purpose of the 114-page document is to guide transition of the neighborhood into a “more traditional downtown” with a “distinct identity” that includes a “mix of commercial, residential, governmental and cultural uses,” according to the plan.
On a broader scale, the plan is intended to be “something of an intermediate step” that would lead to fulfillment of the Comprehensive Plan, Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said at a June 9 Planning Board workshop, where members unanimously recommended the plan to the City Council.
The threat of gentrification and subsequent lack of housing for working families in the wake of implementation of the plan has been presented by some neighborhood residents as a rising concern.
At Monday’s workshop, Chris Kessler, 32, of 41 Cottage Road, asked if the council had any concern about gentrification in the Mill Creek and Knightville neighborhoods, “not just on the future of South Portland and how it plays a role in the greater Portland area as people migrate to this area, but also when it comes to the affordable housing question?”
Councilor Claude Morgan told Kessler, “What reality instructs me in having seen it in many instances is that density and urban density produces higher cost per square foot. That’s not always appealing, but that’s part of the reality.”
Morgan didn’t discount the possibility of eventual affordable housing efforts, but said “those suggestions may not, in the large, long-term organic growth of the area, be able to sustain themselves simply economically.”
The important thing for the future of Mill Creek with the master plan in tow, Morgan said, is that “we are recording the city’s intent for what takes place … it’s kind of like a huge deed. The important thing is when an investor comes to this city … the first thing they get is the report of the record of the city’s intent. That’s the significance here.”
Even though the positive aspects of the plan outweigh possible complications as a result of implementation, Councilor Patti Smith said the issue of affordable housing should not be ignored.
Smith compared Mill Creek to East Bayside in Portland, where she works, which has transitioned from a virtually vacant, warehouse area into a rapidly growing multi-use neighborhood with aesthetically modern residential buildings and hip, locally-owned businesses.
“It’s becoming a wonderful place to live,” Smith said, but the area has struggled with two issues: the lack of greenery and the lack of affordable housing.
“When you have a mini commercial zone like this, a lot of times (they are) are looking for a workforce that’s right in the neighborhood,” Smith said. “It may not be highly technically skilled workers, but some other types of workers where their skills are valued and they want to live in this area.
“Affordable housing is definitely an issue,” she said. “I hear it time and time again working in Portland: people can’t afford to live there anymore.”
With regard to the Mill Creek plan, Smith said, “I think it’s important to think about what kind of workforce development comes from this plan and then where will these people live.”
All councilors agreed the Mill Creek neighborhood is in need of revitalization.
“Its current state is sub-status, it is not fully acceptable. It remains this seed bed that just won’t sprout. (To give it a master plan) is to give it some nutrition,” Morgan said.
Fulfillment of the master plan doesn’t necessarily mean starting over from the beginning, Councilor Maxine Beecher, “but for one area it says change done right can be a real blessing.”
The City Council is slated to vote on the final draft of the plan on July 6.