Portland councilors back Szanton plan for Douglass Street housing

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Portland City Councilors on Monday night advanced a plan to sell city-owned property to developers for affordable housing projects, although it was not the plan that was recommended to them.

The council voted 7-2, with Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilor Nick Mavodones opposed, to begin the process of selling two parcels of land at 41 and 93 Douglass St. to The Szanton Co.

The proposal recommended to the council called for selling the land to developers Jack Soley and Avesta Housing. But after hearing public comment, Councilor Belinda Ray proposed an amendment in favor of The Szanton Co. She said Szanton would do more to address the “missing middle” for housing because it would make more units available for people earning 60-100 percent of the area’s median income.

“Our middle is hollowing out,” Ray said.

Nathan Szanton is president of The Szanton Co., which received backing from the Portland City Council on Monday to acquire city-owned land on Douglass Street for new housing. (Courtesy The Szanton Co.)

The amendment narrowly prevailed, 5-4, with Snyder and Mavodones joined in the minority by Councilors Justin Costa and Spencer Thibodeau.

The city last held a workshop on the plan on Nov. 5 and had to postpone a discussion last week due to the length of that meeting. Costa proposed postponing again Monday night to Dec. 7, saying he knew newly elected councilors wanted to participate. His motion failed 6-3, with Costa joined by Councilors Kim Cook and Pious Ali in the minority.

Earlier this summer, the council’s Economic Development Committee recommended accepting a $575,000 offer from Soley and Avesta following a request for proposals. The Soley and Avesta plan was then known as Douglass Yards.

The city also received the Szanton proposal, known as Douglass Commons, which was an offer of $475,000.

Douglass Yards called for a 40-unit apartment building, a 30-unit condominium building, and 10 single-family homes with accessory dwelling units. Douglass Commons proposed a four-story, 56-unit apartment building, another three-story building with 36 units, and four two-story buildings.

Ray and other councilors said the Douglass Commons proposal had 52 cooperative units, which would create a permanent level of affordability, and would provide market-rate apartments for people in the 75-80 percent range of median income. While Ray said both proposals were good for the city, the Szanton proposal better addressed the needs the council had laid out for the city and provided more diversity in the dwellings offered.

“That’s where I see the Szanton proposal as being superior,” Ray said.

Both proposals would make use of affordable housing tax increment financing, and both would require zoning changes.

The next step in the process is drafting a purchase-and-sale agreement between Szanton and the Economic Development Committee.

Although most councilors agreed either proposal would end up creating benefits for the city, Mavodones said he was “puzzled” by the amendment process, since the committee had made a recommendation to the council that was being ignored.

He said he supported the committee’s recommendation of the Avesta project because it would provide more revenue to the city from the sale, and would likely be able to be built more quickly.

Snyder said though both proposals were good, she was also supporting the Avesta plan because of its speedier proposed timeline.

“I keep coming back to a sense of urgency,” she said. “I want to see this housing built.”

Members of the public who spoke were about evenly divided between the two proposals.

Robert Liscord, a South Portland resident who formerly lived in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood, said both projects were good plans to address the need for more affordable housing, but he favored the Szanton proposal.

Liscord said he was priced out of living in Portland, and the Szanton project, with its more unique approach of cooperative housing, will provide more housing opportunities.

“The cooperative model is absolutely a proven model,” he said.

Portland School Board chair: Virus isn’t only challenge 

In his annual State of the Schools address, Portland School Board Chair Roberto Rodriguez told the City Council and the city’s residents that although the coronavirus pandemic had altered the school year, the virus was not the only crisis facing the district.

Rodriguez said the Portland Public Schools continues to fight systemic racism at all levels, and the board remains committed to achieving equity and rooting out systemic inequalities.

Portland School Board Chair Roberto Rodriguez.

It has been an up-and-down year for the schools, which had their last day of full in-school participation on March 13. Since then, students finished the 2019-2020 school year virtually, and have gone to a hybrid model of education with some in-person days and other virtual days this school year.

Rodriguez said the board had planned to make more substantial investments in its equity goals but had to scale back its budget requests because of the pandemic. He said the budget continues to make progress in closing the opportunity gap for students, and the schools cannot let the pandemic derail their goals.

“At Portland Public Schools we are serious about eliminating injustice in our schools,” he said.

He said one indicator of that was the district providing free meals to its students all summer, even though the buildings and facilities were closed.

Rodriguez said a recent development involved the Buildings for Our Future plan, which seeks to renovate and modernize the city’s aging elementary schools.

The renovations planned for Lyseth Elementary School are still on track to be completed next fall, but because of the recently passed referendum questions in Portland – specifically the Green New Deal, which calls for higher efficiency standards in new construction – he said work on the remaining three schools will have to be delayed.

Rodriguez said the School Department was preparing to go out to bid on those remaining project, but that process will be delayed.

— Colin Ellis

A map of the proposed Munjoy Hill Historic District (in blue) with “noncontributing” buildings marked in purple and orange. (Courtesy city of Portland)

City Council postpones decision on Munjoy Hill Historic District

Portland City Councilors on Monday night postponed a vote on a plan to create a historic district in the city’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood until February, when there will be three new councilors.

Although the vote to postpone was ultimately unanimous, several councilors said they did not want to postpone and only voted to do so when it became clear the decision would be tabled.

The motion to postpone was made by Councilor Nick Mavodones, who repeated statements he made during a previous council workshop, where he said councilors had not had enough time with the subject. He said this item came from the Planning Board after it held several meetings with high public participation.

Had it come from a council committee, he said he might not have moved for postponement.

“However, it’s a very substantial item,” Mavodones said. “I just think to have roughly half an hour of questioning is the thing that troubles me.”

Mavodones said the attempt to postpone was “purely a process issue,” as he wanted to ensure the council had enough time to get all its questions answered before a vote.

Councilor Belinda Ray initially said she would vote against postponement, but eventually supported it. She said while she agreed she would have liked a longer workshop ahead of Monday night, she said she felt she had all the information she needed to vote.

“If we postpone, what information are we looking for that we don’t have?” Ray said.

The proposal for a Munjoy Hill Historic District dates back to 2017, when city planning staff began working on the designation. The Planning Board took up the item last November, but it was eventually pushed into the spring and summer due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Planning Board recommended the contested plan to the council by a 4-3 vote.

The proposed district would include  nearly 430 properties in the East End, and was also recommended by the city’s Historic Preservation Board. 

In addition to the properties within the district, there are six buildings outside of the contiguous boundaries of the proposal the city is hoping to designate as landmarks.

Mayor Kate Snyder said she was against postponement, although she did support it in the end. She said this was one of the first issues she had meetings about when she was elected mayor and felt she was ready to act. But she said she would respect the “majority will of the council.”

The council will take the proposal up again on Feb. 1, 2021. The three new councilors who will be sworn in by then are Mark Dion, April Fournier, and Andrew Zarro, replacing Councilors Jill Duson, Kim Cook, and Justin Costa.

— Colin Ellis

Recount set for short-term rental question

The city of Portland will hold a recount this week of the one ballot question that failed to pass on Nov. 3.

Question E, which sought to tighten restrictions on short-term housing rentals, was defeated by 222 votes; five other questions passed by very comfortable margins.

Question E, which received just under 50 percent support, attracted the most outside funding from opponents and opposition groups, with Airbnb alone contributing $125,000.

The recount will be held at 9 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 19, in the Portland Exposition Building.

— Colin Ellis