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

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Keep Portland Livable" is making Portland's gentrification problem worse

A couple weeks ago, we learned that Peter Monro and Tim Paradis, the two men behind “Keep Portland Livable,” had been working closely with the developers of the proposed Midtown development in Bayside, and will now support a revised proposal with a large reduction in housing.

I'd been reserving judgement on this turn of events until I'd had a chance to see the revised plans. Now that those have been posted on the city's website, I'm pretty disappointed. The new project is, however, entirely consistent with the privileged mindset of the well-to-do homeowners who bankrolled "Keep Portland Livable." Here are some of its problems:

They subtracted lots of the housing, but kept most of the parking.
The most credible complaints from “Keep Portland Livable” concerned the massive parking garage being proposed. But, in the updated version that bears the Paradis/Monro seal of approval, the massive garage is still there, and it actually grew an additional level.

In fact, it now would stand as the tallest, most prominent edifice in the revised proposal (pictured at right). How's that for symbolism?

The new Paradis/Monro project dedicates a much higher proportion of real estate to car storage than to people. The original plan was to have about 1.3 parking spaces per apartment. But under the new plan, each apartment will have 1.8 parking spots. That’ll help “keep it livable” for wealthier residents who want to bring multiple cars with them into the heart of the city, but it's going to make the city's streets less livable for everyone else.

It won't be more affordable; in fact, it will likely be more expensive.
The revised proposal makes no provisions for more-affordable housing — indeed, with hundreds of fewer apartments available in this new proposal, the developers will need to charge substantially higher rents for each unit in order to satisfy their investors and break even on construction costs. And speaking of rent inflation...

The truncated apartment buildings in the revised proposal (bottom, above) will have fewer apartments, and therefore they'll only be "livable" to half as many families.
It's a lost opportunity to address Portland's housing shortage.
The original proposal would have had up to 850 apartments. The revised project, with only 440 apartments, gives 410 fewer households the opportunity to live within short walking distance of three supermarkets, a dozen bus routes, downtown retail services and thousands of jobs.

Hundreds of new families are moving to Portland each year. Many are moving from places like Los Angeles or Brooklyn out of a desire to live in an attractive city near the ocean; many others are moving from rural areas out of necessity to live near health care and social services.

How the city makes room for these newcomers is a largely unresolved question.

Now that the "midtown" proposal has been scaled back with 410 fewer homes, it’s not as though 410 apartment-seekers who would have lived in the high rises will simply evaporate into thin air. Instead of occupying a long-vacant lot in Bayside, many of those newcomers will instead take over apartments and homes in established neighborhoods like Parkside, Munjoy Hill, or the West End (where Monro himself settled a few years ago when he arrived here from Massachusetts).

Or, if they don’t take over housing in Portland, perhaps they’ll join the thousands of migrants taking up residence in suburbs like Scarborough and Windham instead, where running even the most basic errands require burnt offerings of fossil fuels.

It's a terrible precedent for civic planning
The original 'midtown' proposal was faithful to the city's "New Vision for Bayside," a 1999 neighborhood plan that explicitly called for high-rise buildings and hundreds of new apartments to be built on this site to make Bayside feel like an extension of downtown and to help reduce suburban sprawl in rural communities outside of Portland. It was a good plan, and these developers collaborated closely with city planners and neighborhood leaders as their plans coalesced over a period of several years.

The opinions of two wealthy dudes aren't supposed to trump the city's long-standing economic development and housing policies. But the "Keep Portland Livable" guys have shown us a new, unwelcome truth for our income-stratified city: that those with the privilege to buy their own lawyers, public relations flacks, and lots of Facebook advertising can assert a de facto veto over the city's progressive housing goals and neighborhood-based planning process.

No urban plan will ever satisfy everyone, but the city's planning process is intended to balance and prioritize countervailing concerns (for instance, the overwhelming need for new housing, versus a few residents' aesthetic preferences for horizontally-oriented groundscrapers).

If the city's wealthy citizens are going to veto any new housing proposal that they don't like, then the city will quickly become inhospitable to everyone but the wealthy.

Urban design needs to be less elitist
I've heard from several people in the past few weeks who have seen the new plan, observed its weaknesses and wryly concluded that Paradis and Monro have "sold out" their values by agreeing to this compromise.

Saying that they've “sold out” misjudges the men’s intentions, though. Peter Monro and Tim Paradis are wealthy homeowners (Monro would really like to tell you about his recent two-month Spanish vacation), whose West End and Old Port property puts them in Portland’s top stratum of real estate wealth.

The city's housing shortage simply isn't a problem for these guys. And so, in the absence of real problems, it makes a certain amount of sense that they'd get so wrapped up in a first-world problem like a moderately tall apartment complex being built in the middle of the city.

Still, struggling to maintain some degree of egalitarianism in our cities against the desires of an increasingly powerful and wealthy 1% will be the defining challenge of urban planning in the next few decades. These guys are on the wrong side of that struggle. As Victor Gruen was to freeways, so Keep Portland Livable is to gentrification.

The challenge for the next generation – my generation – is to make sure that our revitalized cities will still make room for the diversity of people who would like to live in them. Keep Portland Livable's midtown intervention – like the destructive urban renewal of the last century – is an instructive example of what not to do.