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

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Portland just got better: new zoning legalizes more affordable housing, fewer cars

Good news - at Monday's meeting, Portland city councilors unanimously agreed to loosen zoning requirements for housing on the Portland peninsula.

The biggest and most significant changes were to the city's residential parking requirements. Previously, the city had required new housing to include two new off-street parking spaces per dwelling unit. Since the average parking space takes up about as much space as a studio apartment, Portland's parking policy effectively tripled the land and construction costs of every apartment built.

These requirements were ill-conceived leftovers from 1960s-era, pro-automobile activist planners. They functioned as a sort of social engineering that was in vogue forty years ago: an attempt to force city-dwellers to buy more cars by devoting excessive amounts of urban real estate to motor vehicle storage.

Because the rules were so restrictive, there hasn't been a single multi-family residential housing project built on the Portland peninsula in the past 10 years that hasn't also been forced to get special "contract zone" approval from the City. The rules effectively made it illegal for the free market to build new housing that was affordable to the middle class. City Hall wasted hundreds of hours of staff time on a handful of projects that made the effort to go through the laborious contract zoning process. While other cities enjoyed the first big boom in inner-city housing construction in decades, we mostly missed it.

As of Monday, though, the City will only require one parking space per dwelling unit on the peninsula. Developers will also be given more flexibility in avoiding parking requirements: for instance, including one space for a carsharing vehicle could replace 8 required parking spaces in a development, and the planning board can also grant leniency in parking requirements for elderly housing, or for housing that's accessible to transit.

Our city councilors, who passed these changes unanimously, deserve a lot of credit - once the housing market begins to recover, these changes are going to make a huge difference in making our streets safer and our neighborhoods more vibrant.

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