An op-ed I wrote a while back and never submitted. found it recently and liked it. Still germane years later.
“With nerves rubbed raw by the controversy over the now dormant plan to build an event center by selling Congress Square and by the compromised Midtown development, Greg Kesich penned an editorial chastising citizens for not being sufficiently pro-growth. This opinion is shared by the local Chamber of Commerce and much of the business community. Described as ‘loudmouths’, concerned citizens are shamed because they chose to use the courts to intervene with decisions that seemed political or not to follow previously set forth guidelines. In the wake of this unpleasantness, the developers of The Portland Company come before the City Council and ask for a zoning change; a new group with the obnoxious (to me) name Soul of Portland is born and I am asked to join.
In the midst of a vigorous social media conversation concerning Peter Munro’s rejoinder to this editorial, I was reminded of Karen Sanford and the Waterfront Referendum back in the 80s. The referendum, passed by a 2-1 majority, effectively shut down all non-marine uses and left the wharves to slip into attractive decrepitude. What no one anticipated, of course, was that the fish would leave the Gulf of Maine and green crabs would migrate north in droves. But – the authenticity that has contributed so much to our livability and tourism was retained, even though the marine economy never returned. Our decision-making around the Eastern Waterfront and The Portland Company development should be informed by history like this; there will be unintended consequences whatever decision is made.
Portland has changed in my forty-one years as a resident; change accelerates and slows, buildings are torn down and buildings are built or repurposed. The demographic of the city changes. We know that in the late 1940s we were home to almost 90,000 people; we have recently grown to 66,138 in the most recent census estimate (2013). Portland has become metropolitan, to steal a word from USM’s rebranding. Part of our challenge is where to find room for our newcomers without displacing the people who have made Portland so popular.
Part of the solution lies in the ideas that Jeff Levine and the Planning Department are proposing. They include incentives for density, changes to codes to make small development and reuse of buildings feasible, inclusionary zoning, and more. I support all of these recommendations. They may work well, they may work partially, and they may have unintended consequences – but I support them because they are based in good research and national best practices. I also support the zoning change (and measuring the building height from water’s edge) that will allow the development of the Portland Company to take its next step.
Let’s set the bar high and demand quality, authenticity, and integrity. Let’s reject the self-serving needs of the few and work to create public good for the community. Let’s ask the developers of The Portland Company to make it a joyful experience. We have lots of harbor views; we don’t have sufficient joy here in Portland. Let people walk, fish, congregate, and take pleasure in an area that is now quite private. Focus on what could be rather than what may be lost. A great new place is worth having view corridors rather than a full panorama for part of the walk or drive up Fore Street.”