South Portland's Mill Creek plan prompts concern about housing affordability

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SOUTH PORTLAND — As the final draft of the Mill Creek Master Plan is polished before going to the City Council next week, some people believe the plan lacks an adequate commitment to affordable housing.

“I love everything about the community and want to stay here for the rest of my life,” resident Chris Kessler told the Planning Board June 9. “… (But) my family is definitely one of those who are trying to keep up (with) affording (to live) in the Mill Creek area.”

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 for three decades.

In 2005, the city and the Knightville Neighborhood Association attempted to draft plans for how Knightville and Mill Creek could be improved, “but the recommendations that emerged were never synthesized into an overall plan,” according to the master plan.  

In 2012, the city added a Future Land Use section to the Comprehensive Plan, detailing the economic future for both neighborhoods as “blending a redeveloped, higher-density mixed-use commercial center in Mill Creek with a revitalized and redeveloped Knightville neighborhood.”

Yet on the Mill Creek side, according to the final draft of the plan, the city has had “limited success in altering the pattern of development.”

The essential purpose of the master plan is to reinvigorate the neighborhood by transforming it into a “more traditional downtown” with a “distinct identity” that includes a “mix of commercial, residential, governmental and cultural uses,” according to the plan. 

From a larger scale, the Mill Creek Master 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. 

Outlined in the 114-page document are directives in three primary areas, according to consultant Mark Eyerman of Planning Decisions: public investments, revising current zoning, and how to work with residents and developers.

Fulfillment of the master plan will involve much more collaboration between the city and private investors, developers and property owners, Eyerman said at the workshop.

“The vision outlines the future: what do we want Mill Creek to be 10, 20, 50 years from now,” Eyerman said. 

Increasing the value of property is a “key element” in the overall vision for Mill Creek, he added. 

While the restoration of Mill Creek is likely to take several years, some residents are worried about the implications of increased property value – and the lack of mentions about affordable housing in the master plan.  

Kessler, 32, of 41 Cottage Road, is one of those residents.

He, his wife Jessie, and their two young children have lived in their two-bedroom apartment for seven years after moving from upstate New York after they graduated from college. 

“When we got married, we visited a friend out here and fell in love with the place,” Kessler said recently. 

“I’ve seen it become increasingly more expensive,” he said of the neighborhood. “We’re very much a part of this community, (and) we’re very concerned that we’re going to have to involuntarily leave.”

The Master Plan needs to address affordable housing, Kessler said: “What are we going to do to not let this place become totally gentrified?”

One of the biggest concerns he has about the future of South Portland is “right now we’re seeing a really big increase in the value of property,” Kessler told the board. 

Real estate prices and rents have been “increasing significantly over the past couple of years to the point where it’s kind of putting a choke-hold on working-class families,” he said. 

Planning Board member Linda Boudreau agreed.

“While we need to protect the future (of the neighborhood),” she said, “we also need to protect what we currently have.”

Kessler said the necessity to create incentives for developers and property owners to offer “more affordable housing for working-class families” should be a part of the immediate future for South Portland.

Comprehensive Plan Committee member and City Councilor Maxine Beecher said she thinks Kessler’s idea is “a good one.”

Crafting a solution could potentially involve altering the city’s zoning, or adding ordinances to regulate affordable housing, similar to Portland’s recently adopted “Encourage and Ensure” housing amendments.

The “inclusionary zoning” amendments, as they’re also referred to, are intended to both “encourage additional housing development through thoughtful zoning changes,” and to “ensure that a reasonable percentage of the housing developed in Portland is affordable to those making the area median income,” according to a May 14 memorandum written by Jeff Levine, planning and urban development director for Portland. 

The historic reason for inclusionary zoning, according to the memo, is a “market failure in the form of a gap between what the market is producing and what the needs of the community are.”  

Inclusionary zoning would require that new residential developments of 10 units or more “restrict at least 10 percent” of those units as “affordable to those making 100-120 percent of the area median income or below (currently about $77,500 to $96,875 for a family of four).”

Haeuser said the Planning Board has not yet discussed drafting inclusionary zoning amendments, but that a conversation about the matter is “possible in the not very distant future.”

Beecher said she thinks “the area should have mixed housing. I would prefer it not be a single, big housing unit, but rather the affordable be intermixed.”

Boudreau, meanwhile, said she “would hate to see us build a high-rent district for the people who really don’t need the facilities and accommodations of the district we’re trying to create.”

The City Council will discuss the Mill Creek Master Plan in a workshop on Monday, June 22. 

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

Sidebar Elements

Chris Kessler at Legion Square, where Cottage Road and Ocean Street meet at the northeast corner of South Portland’s Mill Creek neighborhood. “We’re very much a part of this community,” he said, “(and) we’re very concerned that we’re going to have to involuntarily leave.”

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.