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

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

When "open space" isn't the best choice for the environment

Tonight, Portland's Community Development Committee reviewed the one and only proposal the City received for the redevelopment of the Adams School site in the East End (about which I've written previously).

Given the state of the housing market in general, we should count ourselves lucky that the City received any housing proposals at all. And doubly lucky that the one we did receive, from Avesta Housing, looks quite strong on first impression. Avesta is proposing 40 units of housing, half of which would be 3-bedroom units suitable for families, in ten similar buildings arranged around a central "Marada Adams Park":

Looks good - the buildings face the street, mimic the neighborhood's triple-decker architecture, and, best of all, provide new, centrally-located, affordable, and walkable homes to forty households. In exchange for this benefit, Avesta is asking the city for a $1.66 million TIF loan, plus about half a million dollars in local and state affordable-housing grants, plus additional affordable housing funds from federal and other programs.

Still, as great as this all seems, I can't help but think about how it could be better. And what strikes me the most is the huge park in the middle of this proposal. I know that the neighborhood wants it there, but the neighborhood doesn't need it by any means. More housing would be better, not only for the city's finances and for the middle-class families who could live there, but for southern Maine's environment in general. Here's why:

For starters, this site already has remarkable access to two of the city's most celebrated open spaces: the Eastern Prom (two blocks down Moody Street) and Fort Allen Park (two blocks down Vesper Street). Besides, sacrificing a small corner of the proposed Marada Adams Park wouldn't by any means harm its intended purpose as a neighborhood playground: if anything, it could improve the space's function, by adding more activity from the additional housing and giving the park a more defined, quadrangle-style frame of buildings.

There are big environmental benefits associated with adding more housing here. Another building could give four more households the opportunity to live in town, within walking distance or a bus ride of thousands of jobs, as opposed to living in a comparably-priced, but much less energy-efficient home in the outskirts of Hollis or Gray. By burning less oil to heat their homes and drive around, families living here would save the local atmosphere from tens of thousands of pounds of pollution every year.

Plus, every four units of housing built here, on an already-developed site in Portland, will save four acres of forest or farmland from being developed into a new subdivision out in the suburbs. And that, in turn, will make a small contribution towards conserving wildlife habitat, keeping local farms viable, and preserving water quality in Maine's rivers and streams.

More housing would help keep the city budget healthy, too. Adding some more market-rate housing here will reduce the project's demand on scarce public funds, and leave more money available for other important affordable-housing projects. It would also increase the city's annual return of property taxes, by over $10,000 a year. That may not seem like much, but it would be enough to keep a city pool open for the summer - which was one savings proposal from the past year's budget cuts.

When you stop to think about it, there are clearly some serious trade-offs to consider here. Sacrificing this small corner of open space could save the city enough money to keep a pool open, or provide special education to four more students each year, or build more affordable housing elsewhere in the city. It would also provide a substantial relief to southern Maine's air and water quality, reduce traffic on our streets, and play a small role in preserving rural communities outside of Portland.

And my more subjective opinion: more housing, with buildings defining a clearer outdoor "room" along Moody Street, could also improve the park's proposed function as a playground and neighborhood gathering spot.

To make a long argument short, we need to ask ourselves this: in a neighborhood that already has so much access to parks and open space, should we really be making all of these financial and ecological sacrifices for yet another patch of grass? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

You can read more about Avesta Housing's "Beckett Green" proposal here.

1 comment:

Corey Templeton said...

All good points. I am just happy that they aren't building a parking garage. :P