Portland is experimenting with using zoning incentives to encourage the development of more housing in some neighborhoods.
The city will allow certain types of business drive-through windows in buildings along parts of Forest and Washington avenues and other areas where they were not allowed before – as long as housing is included on the upper floors.
The City Council Dec. 16 passed amendments to the zoning ordinance for community business zones that allow drive-throughs for only two types of businesses – pharmacies and banks – on the condition that they be in multi-story buildings with residential units making up the majority of the space on upper floors in at least three units. Councilor Spencer Thibodeau cast the only opposing vote.
The zoning amendments unify the regulations for drive-throughs in all three B2 zones. In addition to expanding the areas where drive-throughs are allowed, into the B-2b zones, the amendments apply the new limits and conditions to any new drive-throughs in the B-2 and B-2c zones where they had previously been allowed as a conditional use. Existing non-conforming drive-throughs would be grandfathered.
According to zoning maps on the city website, the areas where drive-throughs are now allowed include Forest Avenue between Interstate 295 and Woodford Street; portions of Congress and Washington avenues; an area between Forest and Park avenues and Preble Street, and the intersection of Valley and West Commercial streets.
Restaurant and other types of drive-throughs are still permitted as an accessory use in the B-4 zone and in B-5 locations outside of the area between Forest Avenue and Franklin Street, according to a memo to the council from then-Planning Director Jeff Levine when it initially took up the proposal 11 months ago.
The Planning Board unanimously recommended adopting the amendments in December 2018.
The City Council previously heard the proposal March 4. At that meeting, concerns were raised in public comment that the new requirements would be too costly for developers, that it would be difficult to provide parking for the residences, and that the height restrictions in the B2 zones work against the housing requirements for upper floors. Councilors also raised concerns about height limits and parking.
The height restrictions in community business zones is 45 feet, or 50 feet if the first floor is commercial, and 65 feet on lots greater than five acres in zones B2 and B-2c.
The council postponed action several times before taking it up again Dec. 16. Although a second public comment period was not required, councilors suspended their rules to allow public comment at the Dec. 16 meeting. However, no one from the public spoke for or against the measure.
Planning Board Chairman Sean Dundon told the council Dec. 16 that while minimizing the impacts of the drive-throughs that are allowed, the amendments “leverage other city goals of increasing our supply of housing, respect Portland’s unique quality of place and encourage transit-supportive development.”
Further, he said, the amendments support the Comprehensive Plan goal of increasing housing along major corridors and intersections.
Planning Director Christine Grimando noted in a Dec. 11 memo to councilors that while limiting and regulating drive-throughs is common practice, and individual projects with housing over banks or pharmacies with drive-throughs are not uncommon, requiring housing to accompany drive-throughs in those projects is “an unusual and ambitions approach to furthering city goals.”
All councilors supported the proposal except Thibodeau, who did not want to extend the areas where drive-throughs are permitted. His proposed amendment to remove B-2b from the affected zones failed 8-1.
“I want to go on the record of being anti-drive-through,” he said. “I don’t want to further extend this even with housing on top of it, to the B-2b zones. I hope drive-throughs would move to the rearview mirror as we expand with technologies.”
Councilor Belinda Ray said the new requirements would be particularly helpful on Forest Avenue, which is mainly B-2b, and would balance the impacts of drive-throughs while providing an incentive for housing along the city’s major transit corridors.
“One way a drive-through incentivises housing is if you have a good anchor tenant on the first floor – a CVS or a bank that has resources to build out that first floor – and have a business there that can then support affordable housing above,” Ray said.
“We do not know if it is going to produce housing,” she continued, “but it’s a good way for us to check and see: Can we incentivize housing by allowing a specific use instead of prohibiting it and demanding the housing without it?”