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

Monday, January 23, 2012

Agenda Item: URBANIZED at Space Gallery

Showing tomorrow at Space Gallery:

Urbanized (the third part of Gary Hustwit’s design film trilogy, joining Helvetica and Objectified) is a feature-length documentary about the design of cities, which looks at the issues and strategies behind urban design and features some of the world’s foremost architects, planners, policymakers, builders, and thinkers.

Over half the world’s population now lives in an urban area, and 75% will call a city home by 2050. But while some cities are experiencing explosive growth, others are shrinking. The challenges of balancing housing, mobility, public space, civic engagement, economic development, and environmental policy are fast becoming universal concerns. Yet much of the dialogue on these issues is disconnected from the public domain.

Followed by Q&A with Noah Chasin, Assistant Professor at Bard College and Mitchell Rasor of MRLD Landscape Architecture + Design.

Doors at 7 pm, film starts at 7:30. See you there.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Portland's Smart-Growth Housing Plan: 10 Year Progress Report

Ten years ago, the City of Portland drafted a new Housing Plan. Recognizing that housing prices were rising out of control and that it was becoming increasingly hard to find a place to live here, the city set out to find ways to increase the number of homes and apartments available here.

The city's housing plan is a crucial smart growth strategy for the entire Greater Portland region. Sprawl isn't merely the fault of outlying rural communities. If people are going to be able to live near the places where they work, drive less, and promote local small businesses in walkable neighborhoods, then the City of Portland absolutely needs to provide more housing opportunities in town. Otherwise, households will be forced by basic financial necessity to find affordable housing elsewhere.

So, after ten years, how are we doing? Not so well, as I outline in my column this week in the Portland Daily Sun. In spite of some minor regulatory improvements, the vast majority of the county's new housing is still being built outside of the city limits, in outlying communities. That means more traffic on local streets, more money being spent on foreign oil, fewer customers for local small businesses, and more regional vulnerability to volatile housing markets.

In this blog post, I'll go into some more detail, looking at three specific Housing Plan goals and how we've so far failed to meet them.

Goal: Encourage growth in Portland; target Portland to achieve and maintain a 25% share of Cumberland County's population.

Reality: In 1960, before urban renewal laid waste to our downtown, 40% of Cumberland County residents lived in the City of Portland. In the 2000 Census, 24.2% of the County's population lived in Portland. By the 2010 Census, it was evident that sprawl had continued unabated for the past decade: Portland's population had grown somewhat, but not as fast as the rest of the county. The city now possesses only 23.5% of the county's population, and only 24.4% of the County's housing units:

Cumberland County populationPortland City population% of County population living in PortlandCumberland County Housing UnitsPortland Housing Units% of County housing in Portland

This goal drives many of the plan's other objectives: if more and more County residents are living farther away, that creates sprawl, and hollows out the city's local economy. Therefore, the City of Portland needs to add new housing within the city's limits, at an equal or greater pace as the rest of the County's municipalities.

The Census Bureau also tracks building permit data for each year, and from those statistics, it's clear that the City isn't even close to keeping pace with sprawl:

Here's the source data, and a link to the Census site.

In this chart, the red line indicates county-wide housing construction for each year since 2000. The orange line is 50% of the height of the red line: that's where the City's housing construction would need to be in order for Portland's population growth to keep pace with the rest of the county's, in line with the housing plan's goals. The blue line, nowhere near the orange line, shows how much housing actually got built each year.

Instead of providing 50% of the County's new homes, the City of Portland has actually built a pathetic 11% of the county's homes. In other words: in the decade since the city's new housing plan got written, roughly 9 out of 10 new homes in Cumberland County have contributed to sprawl. Ugh.

Outlook: You might suppose, as I did, that the City might have had a rebound relative to the rest of the county after 2008, when spiking gas prices and the foreclosure crisis put the big hurt on sprawl development in the suburbs.

Unfortunately, you'd be mistaken: in the past 3 years, the City's proportion of housing construction relative to the rest of the County has fallen even more, to around 6%. The fundamental issue seems to be that new housing construction in Portland is a lot more expensive than it is in the 'burbs, thanks to more expensive real estate and zoning mandates. The main expense that's under the city's control - its outrageously expensive and outdated parking mandates - was loosened somewhat in 2008, when planners reduced off-street parking requirements somewhat. In hindsight, unfortunately, it hasn't had much of an effect, and planners ought to be asking whether they should be doing more.

Goal: Create 300 new units of housing in Bayside within 5 years [by 2007] and 500 additional units within 25 years, a significant portion of which will be owner-occupied units.

Reality: Cumberland County's Census Tract 6 is roughly contiguous with the Bayside neighborhood. Census data indicates that there were 1,421 housing units in the neighborhood in 2000. By the 2010 Census, there were 1,618 housing units: a net gain of 197 homes.

Census Tract 6 extends only as far south as Cumberland Avenue, which means that these numbers don't include the Chestnut St. Lofts project near Portland High School, completed in 2007. Adding that project in bring brings the neighborhood's total to 234 new homes. So five years past the original deadline, the City still hasn't met the plan's short-term goal.

Outlook: Still, two large apartment complexes from Avesta Housing are currently under construction in Bayside, and will add 91 new subsidized apartments within the next year or so. And the Federated Companies, new owners of the Somerset Street blocks along the Bayside Trail, are tentatively planning 540 additional market-rate apartments in high rises on their land. Along with infill projects happening elsewhere in the neighborhood (including, hopefully, along the new Franklin Street), it seems like the city should be able to meet its 25-year housing goal for Bayside, even if it missed the shorter-term goal by a wide margin.

Goal: Encourage and support the Portland Housing Authority to become more active in development of more housing.

Reality: The Portland Housing Authority hasn't developed a single new home on any of its properties since the Reagan administration. But at least there's plenty of free parking in East Bayside!

Outlook: The PHA owns acres of empty and under-utilized real estate on the Portland peninsula and in close-in neighborhoods like East Deering. In the past decade, the value of that land has increased dramatically, and the PHA also possesses the ability to raise capital through bonds. It's in an ideal position, in other words, to de-stigmatize its run-down public housing complexes, improve its financial standing, and help address the city's housing shortages with new, mixed-income housing complexes.

Unfortunately, the PHA is run by bureaucrats whose timidity and lack of creativity and courage are extreme even by bureaucratic standards. I worked with the agency's director, Mark Adelson, during the Peninsula Transit Study, and he insisted that empty parking lots were more important than building new homes for the homeless.

To be fair, the man isn't so much callous as he is afraid that he might hear a complaint from someone who loses their parking lot. 'Tis better for hundreds of people to sleep on the streets than for a single car in East Bayside to park on the street (somebody translate that into Latin so it can be the Agency's new motto).

As a quasi-independent agency, the PHA doesn't have much oversight from the City Council, which is part of the problem. Still, my guess is that the new Mayor and city manager could find creative ways into getting the PHA to be more involved in addressing the city's housing shortages – putting more conditions on the PHA's Community Development Block Grant applications would be a good first step.