A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Bizzarro Portland

In Bizarro Portland, an independent Commission isolated from political influences handles the redevelopment of city land and urban renewal projects. Recently, Bizarro Portland undertook plans to develop a formerly industrial property on Bizarro Portland's waterfront. Instead of letting backroom negotiations with political cronies determine the future of the site, Bizarro Portland instead began a six-month public process to determine a general "framework plan," which offered five key principles of redevelopment: providing open space, respecting the site's history, defining a community focal point, strengthening connections, and embracing sustainability.

After the Bizarro Portland City Council approved the framework plan, then, the independent Bizarro Portland Development Commission began to look for developers for the site. They published a snazzy web site that described the public's goals and advertised the opportunity nationally, and after six months, they had received not a measly two, but nine responses from firms all over the country. Now, three finalists have been chosen to move ahead and assemble detailed proposals - for which they'll have six to eight months to assemble. Following that, the citizens of Bizarro Portland will have another chance to review the proposals. Furthermore, the independent Commission and the citizens of Bizarro Portland will recognize any developer who tries to radically change their development proposal at this late stage in the game as thoroughly unreliable and unprofessional.

Strangest of all, Bizarro Portland actually exists - it's Oregon's largest city. And this waterfront redevelopment project exists, too: it's called Centennial Mills.

Like our Maine State Pier, Centennial Mills is an underutilized part of the other Portland's working waterfront, adjacent to downtown and a former industrial area that's quickly redeveloping into condos and office buildigns. But there's also these differences: Centennial Mills is on a middling river, not the Maine coast, and its existing structures are in terrible shape. Despite these disadvantages, Centennial Mills attracted the interest of NINE national development firms, whereas the Maine State Pier only brought in two proposals from Maine and New Hampshire.

The other Portland only went out in search of developers AFTER citizens crafted a plan that clearly outlined their own goals for the site. Those goals, and the development opportunity, were then published nationwide and on this sophisticated web site. When the three finalists come back with detailed proposals next year, the public will know exactly how the review process will proceed, and any developer that tries to pull a Baldacci by rearranging their proposal in the middle of the game will be laughed out of town.

This way of doing things, with rigorous and clearly-defined public processes and independent redevelopment commissions, requires more up-front planning resources. But it also avoids costly lawsuits later on, planning staff don't have to play catch-up with new procedures determined on the fly by corrupt councilors, and the clarity of the process attracts more legitimate developers - and more development - because everyone knows exactly what to expect.

This method of governing urban redevelopment also happens to have produced dozens of award-winning projects and a city renowned the world over for its livability. Unfortunately, our Portland seems dead-set on following the Newark, NJ model... and the results promise to be ugly.

Read more about the Centennial Mills redevelopment here and here.

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