Portland is sticking to an aggressive schedule to secure approvals for a 200-bed emergency shelter off Riverside Street, with a previously unscheduled Planning Board meeting to accommodate the timeline.
City officials have acknowledged they are trying to use a window that closes 45 days before the Nov. 2 election to circumvent a referendum that would limit the size of new shelters in the city to no more than 50 beds and be retroactive to April. If the Planning Board approves the project at least 45 days before the election, the officials have said, the Riverside shelter plan would not be constrained by the referendum.
Like most city boards and committees in the summer, the Planning Board was only slated to have one meeting in August, which happened on Aug. 10, and the Riverside shelter was not discussed. The board is now planning another meeting on Aug. 24, where the shelter is on the agenda.
The shelter referendum was proposed in the spring by a coalition called Smaller Shelters for Portland, which gathered more than enough petition signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
The city, which is a co-applicant in the permitting process with the developer, Developers Cooperative, has also considered putting a competing measure on the ballot.
Kimberly Cook, a coalition member and former city councilor in the district where the Riverside shelter would be built, said the city scheduling an additional meeting for a project where it is a co-applicant “raises some serious questions.”
She said another troubling aspect is the city has been advising the City Council on how to maintain the aggressive timeline for permitting. She said the council’s decision to approve spending $250,000 on design work for the Riverside shelter was evidence “they wanted to move as quickly as possible in pursuing the permits.”
Cook said scheduling another Planning Board meeting on Aug. 24 to address a backlog of applications is puzzling since “there’s been no indication of where the backlog came from and why all of a sudden we need another meeting.” She said it’s also not clear why it took the city so long to announce the need for another meeting.
“So you start to wonder what’s going on behind the scenes,” Cook said.
Cook said she hopes the city takes more time to consider the Riverside project, which would be the largest emergency shelter north of Boston.
“Let’s face it, Portland is not Boston,” Cook said. “It’s deserving of a significant review. And I know the Planning Board, the fact they had a workshop that took four hours, they intend to do a thorough job and they’ve been put in a difficult position. They’ve heard, like the rest of us, city staff advise the City Council of pursuing an aggressive schedule. And here they are. I just think it’s a tough position that our City Council and mayor have put them in.”
But City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said any appearance of this project being fast-tracked is “simply because of the critical need in our community for a more humane homeless services center.”
The planning and discussion have been going on for more than three years, Grondin said in a prepared statement, and the City Council approved it in June 2019. She said the schedule is “attributed to the fact that the development team has been responsive and thorough in the submission of its application materials.”
Grondin said city staff prioritizes housing in the development queue, where an applicant has submitted everything required, so holding a hearing as soon as possible is entirely appropriate.
Planning Board Chair Brandon Mazer said the Aug. 24 meeting will include a second workshop on the Riverside project. He said the board could decide it needs another workshop, or that it is ready for the project to have a public hearing.
In slower months – the summer or around the winter holidays – Mazer said planning staff and the board usually try to have just one meeting a month. That didn’t work out last summer, he noted, when they were meeting three or four times a month. This summer, he said, it appeared the board could return to just one meeting each in July and August.
“That’s fluid, frankly,” he said. “We had some extenuating circumstances on a number of levels.”
Mazer said the other items on the Aug. 24 agenda include a proposal to turn the former Time and Temperature building on Congress Street into a hotel, and redevelopment of Mercy Hospital on State Street. Mazer said the urban designer who has been working on the hospital proposal for the city is leaving, so staff wanted “to get it in the pipeline” before she left.
“That led us to determine another meeting in August was prudent,” he said.
Mazer said it’s not uncommon to schedule additional meetings for various projects and it’s not uncommon to have to schedule additional meetings if an agenda item is postponed from a previous meeting.
He said the board and planning staff try to prioritize projects that have to do with affordable housing or addressing public needs, but “every project stands on its own.”
Since the board is composed of Portland residents, Mazer said it is safe to assume they were aware of the 45-day rule facing the city. But he stressed the Planning Board was not there to speed up or slow down any project.
“We are reviewing projects under the current standards,” Mazer said. “And if those projects meet those standards and go through the proper review process, what may or may not happen in the future does not really factor into our decision of whether a project meets those standards.”
“Our board is not a policy-making board,” he said. “Our board is not a political board.”