Zack Barowitz

Zack Barowitz

Land Use: Coming to a Ballot Near You

You can’t fight City Hall, but you can make up a ballot referendum to throw a wrench into its works. That is the past, present and likely future history of how citizens deal with land use policies that that they do not like.

Residents might remember public votes on ordinances concerning Congress Square Park and the views from Munjoy Hill. This time around, residents will be voting on a contentious rent-regulation amendment (Question #1) and an anti-zone charge amendment (Question #2).

The question that is not on the ballot is why people are so pissed off. This comes down to a lack of political will to affect real change and the ability for some groups to engage in the process more effectively than others by virtue of having more time, money, knowledge, and resources to devote to the issue.

 

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The coalition of landlords, developers, and realtors who oppose ballot Question 1 say the measure is poorly written and would limit supply, thus driving up costs. The group, named Say No to Rent Control has raised $172,000 to plead their case to the public.

Advocates of rent stabilization say rents are rising anyway and that smaller rent increases will have a negligible effect on landlord’s pocketbooks. And that the ordinance is designed to put more money in the hands of renters while building a more stable workforce. Given that city government prefers the free-market approach yet the majority of the population of Portland are renters, it is little surprise that the City Council Housing Committee tried to avoid the issue a much as possible.

In trying to thread the needle, the City Council’s Housing Committee set forth a series of measures to protect tenants, regulate Airbnbs, and facilitate projects by developers of affordable housing, all while trying not to upset neighbors — or markets. Although there is nothing bad about these policies — the effect is pretty lukewarm as they do not go far enough. Rent stabilization (along with deed restrictions, sale of city-owned land for affordable housing, land trusts, more aggressive zoning changes, etc.) was just one of many initiatives that have not been pursued. So a group of citizens wrote the amendment themselves.

We now have a brewing conflict between tenants and landlords with the city government looking on from the background and policy to be decided by popular vote.

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As described in the Press Herald, passage of Question 2 would:

“(P)revent a zone change from being enacted if 25 percent of residents living within 500 feet sign a document opposing the change. However, a developer could overcome that obstacle by getting a majority of residents living within 1,000 feet of the site to sign a document in support within a 45-day period.”

Question Two reads like an NIMBY wet dream [NIMBY means Not In My Backyard, the rallying cry of the anti-development set]. The effort here is led by Mary Davis, who lives next to a planned redevelopment of the Camelot Farm site on Westbrook Street. The proposed development is a standard matrix of suburban single-family homes arrayed around an oblong driveway. The zone change enabled smaller lot sizes and additional housing units at a lower price point. Davis enlisted residents of the Stroudwater neighborhood who were still smarting over the rezoning of the Elks Lodge on outer Congress Street and the referendum was born. Davis is also part of group filing a lawsuit against the project.

The stretch of road contains several large parcels of pastoral landscape on the way from Stroudwater Village to downtown Westbrook. The area has been infilling with various non-agricultural uses: Westbrook Middle School, an ill-conceived industrial park, and now the proposed development.

Although supporters of the project point to 95 new housing units and preservation of roughly half of the site’s 45 acres; there’s not much to love about the project. Still, proponents of the referendum are playing a dangerous game by giving neighbors control of land use decisions. Given that the public is highly skeptical of any change or new development, one should expect a brave new world of signature gathering with every new project. This alone is likely to scare away a lot of future development. But speculation aside, it is designed to effectively (and retroactively) give neighbors veto power over a vast range of projects already in the works around the city including the Americold storage warehouse on West Commercial Street; affordable housing projects throughout the city; and the expansion of Maine Medical Center into its new Institutional Overlay Zone.

Public veto power comes at a heavy cost and just as the Planning Department is embarking upon a complete redo of the woefully out-of-date city zoning code. Improved zoning is necessary to address the dearth of housing, transportation, and neighborhood centers that is holding the city back.

Maybe a wrench in the works is too weak a metaphor; perhaps a hand grenade in a fish tank is more to the point.

Hungry Hungry Housing (Yes, Portland Is Dying)

Though a clerical error almost made the rent stabilization conversation moot before the debate could even begin, housing activists should mark their calendars for September 6th. That’s when the Portland City Council is set to vote on amendments to the inclusive zoning provision of the city code.

 

The changes amount to some very modest density incentives aimed at developers of affordable housing to make their projects viable. The amendments were written to be sensitive to anticipated pushback from NIMBYs and people who value parking over housing. Despite its limitations, passage of the amendment is critical for anyone who cares about the future of this city.

 

Portland is a great little city, but it is also very seasonally dependent. It is easy among the summer swells to view the introduction of nitro coffee as a sign of progress. But summertime is also a reality check. Friends from away smile indulgently when I talk about all that is going on, but when they tell me about development in Boston, Seattle, New York, Denver, Atlanta, Providence, Pittsburgh, and – dare I say – the other Portland, it outdoes us by an order of magnitude, making me feel like I live in an insignificant little backwater tucked away in a corner of the nation.

 

It’s true that by many measures this town is doing pretty well – development and gastronomy are oft-cited drivers. But just as anyone can look smart in a bull market, even the amateurs know that real estate goes on a boom and bust cycle, and the housing shortage is affecting the construction and food industries. So the question is not how we are doing today – but tomorrow, too.

 

A simple examination of our census data indicates an alarming fact. Portland’s population has been essentially flat since the 1970s. It is well below 1950s level and about equal to the population of Portland in 1915. By comparison, Gorham has grown by about 10,000 and more than doubled its population in the same period; and the growth in Scarborough is even more dramatic. Portland’s population is effectively withering when measured against national and county growth. What is happening is people in crowded housing units (low-wage earners, families, students) are moving away and being replaced by higher-income people in less-crowded units (as well as vacation home buyers, short-contract employees, and Air BnB investors).

 

Consider this statistic: for all the new development in the city, Portland adds .3 people for every new unit of housing – a desperately low figure given the local labor shortages especially in the growth industries of construction and restaurants. This represents what I call Zero-Growth Gentrification: Where new construction and housing costs rise, but only by demand from the high-end of the market.

 

The restaurant industry is feeling this rather acutely. One large waterfront restaurant canceled their planned lunchtime service because they could not find staff. Another restaurateur who has multiple locations brings in Jamaicans on guest worker visas and then finds them temporary housing on (or near) the Portland peninsula— a daunting prospect. And if you mention poaching in a restaurant, it is less likely to refer to a cooking technique and more likely to refer to the practice of “recruiting” staff straight off the floor from one establishment to another.

 

Sure, industry wages could rise more, but higher labor costs would drive up housing and menu prices. Could Portland sustain a $20 tuna fish sandwich? Not when the people who can afford it are here only two weeks out of the year.

 

And despite all the new restaurants, most of the peninsula is effectively a food desert, as is found more typically in under-served neighborhoods.

There is not a single super market in downtown and almost everyone, whether they shop at Whole Foods on the high end, or Save-A-Lot on the low, is obliged to drive or take a cab to do their food shopping. The gap could be filled by Portland’s numerous small independent African, Asian, and Middle Eastern grocery stores, many of which pack quite a variety of products into a small footprint, but at the moment it isn’t. (The Portland Food Co-op is probably the closest thing to a downtown supermarket, but their elevated mission is diminished somewhat by their elevated prices.)

 

Portland needs a lot more housing to be able to retain and increase its population, not just to provide a labor force, but because without it, Portland will become just a seasonal hollowed-out version of itself.

Conflict By Design — How a Power Struggle Between Mayor and City Manager Was the Plan All Along

Imagine, if you will, City Hall as a large playpen.

Now place into it three children. One we shall call Jon; a second named Council (what odd names these parents are giving their children these days!); and a third named Ethan.

Now, imagine some hypothetical parents toss in two beach balls — one to Jon and another to Council. Seeing that he has no ball to play with, Ethan wants to use Jon’s. But Jon doesn’t want to give his ball to Ethan. A parent (let’s call her Danielle) tells Ethan that the ball actually belongs to Jon and that if Ethan wants to play with it, he’ll have to work that out with Jon himself. (Complicating matters, Ethan asks if he could bring a neighborhood friend named Jason along.)

Unfortunately, none of this works out so well. So Grandpa Peter tries to mediate. He attempts this for several months but, unfortunately, Grandpa Peter dies before he can restore order to the playpen. Ethan then tries to play with Council’s ball, but at this point Council and Jon are already engaged in a game, so Ethan is left out again. After a while, Council says the crib is too crowded and that Jason needs to go home and cannot come back.This is the system that Portland wanted — at least, it’s what City Charter commissioners and several councilors wanted.

The public has heard reports about power struggles between Mayor Ethan Strimling, City Manager Jon Jennings, and the City Council for many months. We won’t dig into them here. Here, we’ll examine why those tensions are less a product of some clash of personalities or politics. They’re a natural development of the system we drew up.

Our popularly elected mayor is given very little power, and that’s by design. Thus, our city government is a realpolitik where a weak elected mayor, a strong appointed mayor (the city manager), and — should a councilor decide to vie for de facto speaker role — a council mayor who may pick and choose his or her alliances.

“We knew this would be a fraught relationship that would require two mature partners,” explains James Gooch, a former Portland Commissioner. “We took that chance based on our collective assessment of Portland’s political culture: that as a citizenry, they would little tolerate a demagogue. We also rested on the relative “weakness” (without impotence) of the mayoral position vis a vis the council.” With so many limitations to power, and without the necessary tools to enact that vision, what the Portland City Charter Commission created was not so much a mayor, but a fall guy.

Charting A Course 

feature cityhall

Back in 2012, by the elected Mayor was the central issue in a public referendum for Charter reform. The initiative was led by a progressive group, The League of Young Voters, and a conservative one, the Chamber of Commerce. It was thought that an elected mayor would provide greater leadership and accountability to city government.

Although the majority of the Charter Commissioners were elected, the Chair, Pam Plumb, was appointed by the City Council. Plumb — a former Portland Councilor, Mayor and consultant to City governments (including Portland) — is a strong advocate of the City Manager form of government and is highly skeptical of any form of executive Mayor.

Plumb’s perspective closely resembles that of former Portland Commissioner James Gooch, who explained the difference to me in an email: “Perhaps the hallmark of modern American municipal government has been the evolution of a well-trained cadre of City Managers,” he writes. “The failure of a city government is rare, and not usually due to the professional staff but to meddling from political actors or due to placing the fiscal and managerial reins in the hands of amateurs elected from the public. Portland itself has a past of council members meddling unproductively in the work of the professional staff to the detriment of the city.”

Viewed in this light, popularly elected Mayor Ethan Strimling is recast as a “meddling political actor” and an “amateur elected from the public.” The way the Charter Commission is written, Portland’s mayor is essentially City Manager Jon Jennings.

Members of the Commission understood and tried earnestly to integrate the public’s desire for accountability in government with their own trepidations of the dangers of demagogues and concerns about meddling. Mr. Gooch (who himself was popularly elected) explained the Commission’s duty to safeguard the public trust.

“Here's the thing we grappled with, in the end: [the] progressive [city of] Portland would love to have the chance to elect a Mayor who could make big moves — really change things,” said Gooch. “And believe me, I get that. But we were thinking of a day — a day which may not seem likely right now — when the city might just as well elect a LePage as a Chipman or a Strimling. As remote as that seems, when your job is to structure a government it's an idea you have to entertain.”

If this seems at all undemocratic, keep in mind that limiting the powers of an electorate — aka voting restrictions — is as old as democracy itself. Some voting restrictions are archaic (like those based on gender, skin color, and land ownership) and are generally considered undemocratic. But others (like age and citizenship requirements) are more widely accepted. It is far from a flawless system, as some restrictions meant to protect the electorate can backfire.

In the end, the commission chose not to curtail the powers of the city manager and to create a unique mayor position. The Portland Charter Commission Final Report explicitly states that the mayor position would not be that of an executive but rather a “strong policy mayor” — although this is a bit like praising a bottle of dubious vintage as a “great cooking wine.”

Most municipalities adopt a “strong mayor” or a “weak mayor” setup. “[Portland] went with a ‘hybrid’ approach,” Maine State Senator Ben Chipman told me. Chipman served on the Commission when he was a state rep and was the strongest voice for an executive mayor. “I’m not really sure where else it exists in the country.”

This assessment was confirmed by the city’s human resources department when the question of a salary increase for the mayor came up. The HR department could not find an equivalent position anywhere in the country.

Language Games

Much of the confusion can be attributed to the charter’s fluffy but largely ambiguous language. For example, it states that the mayor’s role is:

“To articulate the city’s vision and goals and build coalitions to further such vision and goals.”

Which may sound innocuous. In fact, this may apply to any citizen especially when one sees that the mayor isn’t granted any special means to bridge conflicting city visions or to build coalitions.

In another section, the charter states that a mayoral task is:

“To consult with and provide guidance to the city manager in the preparation of the annual capital improvement program.”

In her memo, City Attorney Danielle West-Chuhta defined “consult” as to “seek guidance or information from.” Consult, however, is a contronym — a word which contains opposite meanings. So while the transitive sense of consult is to seek advice, the intransitive sense means “to give advice.” Thus leaving everything that much more unclear.

In short, the duties of the mayor as spelled out in the charter fall more in the category of (largely symbolic) responsibilities rather than powers. The Mayor’s roles essentially come down to that of a popularly elected City Council speaker. This may seem like a benign arrangement, but as it’s currently drawn up, the fact that a mayor is not elected by his or her fellow council members as a traditional city council speaker (or pre-charter reform Portland mayor) is problematic.

What’s more, three former mayors sit on the Council, and two senior At-Large Councillors are not only former mayors (Nick Mavodones and Jill Duson) but also sought the mayoral position that Strimling now holds. There would be justification if some at-large members of council felt that they hold the same mandate as the official mayor.

In any case, the Charter grants the mayor several procedural powers in which to rule over the council. These include a longer term, committee appointments, an agenda-setting role, and the ability to veto the budget and present his or her own budget.

Whether these powers are insufficient or they have not been wielded correctly, it should be noted that both Mayor Strimling and his predecessor, Michael Brennan, found that the structure limited their ability to be effective.

Brennan — who served much of his term with decidedly low-key City Manager Mark Rees — nevertheless had his share of challenges. In addition to problems with directing city staff, Brennan lost the support of the Council by acting independently of them. He was effectively shown the door when several senior councilors, including Mavodones and Duson, endorsed Strimling for Mayor in August 2015. 

The Selling Of The Charter

Mayors Strimling and Brennan may not be the only people surprised by the lack of power given the mayor position. The public campaign to pass the Charter focused on the elected aspect and suggested a more powerful role in city government.

A document called “The Portland Charter Commission Fact Sheet” (available on the Portland City website) outlines the role of the mayor in broad qualitative terms. It also makes generous use of weasel words. It describes the mayor’s role as to “oversee implementation of City policies; direct preparation and facilitate adoption of City budgets.” Important responsibilities but with no real power to enact them.

In 2010, supporters of the charter founded a committee that included former Charter Commission Chair Pam Plumb and Vice-Chair Jim Cohen (also a former mayor), that hired a PR and political consultant, Jed Rathband (a former mayoral candidate), to run the campaign to ratify the charter. Campaign records show that Ms. Plumb contributed $750 to the campaign. The measure passed with the support of both the League and the Chamber.

If consolidating power to the city manager position is part of their philosophy of governance, it’s odd, then, that Ms. Plumb and Mr. Cohen continued their advocacy for the popularly elected mayor into late 2015. In an op-ed to the Press Herald, they wrote:

“After nearly 90 years, the people of Portland were finally handed back the right to elect their own mayor. If we like the direction of our city, we can re-elect the incumbent; if we feel that another person could lead the city in a better direction, we can elect someone else.”

The irony is that Plumb to this day believes firmly in the City Manager model and the Charter Commission anticipated a difficult power dynamic.

City Managers: Who the Hell Are They?

City managers were first adopted in the early part of the 20th century. Most of the original managers were civil engineers, but today they generally have a Masters in Public Administration or, increasingly, a Masters of Business Administration. The theory behind the position is as a non-elected executive, the city manager is less subject to political pressure from the electorate and is seen as the adult in the room.

However, if a manager were so inclined, he or she could use a budget item, policy initiative, or staff access to hold considerable influence over councilors by making them look good or bad on the issues that are most important to them.

Were a manager to take such an approach, she or he could gain majority support from the council while at the same time strengthening or weakening the reelection bids of his or her political allies or enemies respectively. What’s more, the manager needn’t worry about taking politically unpopular positions — much less getting reelected. To keep his or her job, the manager needs only to stay in the good graces of the majority of councilors. In other words, five people.

So while the city manager model offers many things, accountability isn’t one of them. And though a city manager may not be given particular incentive to maneuver politically, there isn’t much to prevent it.

Jon Jennings, a “strong” city manager

Jon Jennings has a reputation for being a skilled administrator and smart businessman. His varied résuméincludes working as an Assistant Coach for the Boston Celtics, serving in the Clinton White House, and as a Democratic Congressional Candidate for the State of Indiana.

Much of the conflict between Mayor Strimling and Manager Jennings can be attributed to the longstanding problem of elected officials badgering city staff. Councilors have had free reign to not only consult staff, but also to direct, and even admonish senior, junior, and low-level staff — sometimes over rather trivial matters.

At an Eggs & Issues discussion hosted by the Chamber of Commerce in January, Jennings referenced to the opinion memo of Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta: “We had to adhere to Charter, which meant that staff reports to me and that elected officials could not go directly to staff.”

However, while the City Charter is explicit that elected officials are not permitted to “give an order, publicly or privately, to any such city officer or employee,” it does not lay out parameters for whether or how elected officials may interact with city staff in other ways, such as to seek guidance on an issue or policy. (Manager Jennings did not respond to requests to clarify his statement.)

Despite Mr. Jennings’ hard line approach to interpreting the Charter, former Councilor Jon Hinck said that the Manager’s chain of command system worked. “If I put in a request that I would like to contact a staff person,” says Hinck, “he would make it happen as fast, or faster, than if I contacted that person directly.”

While Manager Jennings is generally viewed as being highly competent, he makes no bones about the assertiveness of his managerial style. Indeed, he has taken on roles that Pam Plumb (a supporter of his position) describes as “highly unusual.”

Traditionally, a city manager is not a public figure, but instead takes a background role. By contrast, Jennings has recommended the renaming of Lobsterman Park after former City Manager John Menario, and changing Franklin Street to Martin Luther King Boulevard. Jennings was also thought to be behind the opposition of a task force recommendation to restore two-way traffic to State and High Streets (although he stated at a public hearing to be agnostic on the issue).

“I think the Manager allowed his prior conceptions to control his thinking [on the State and High issue] before considering the work and analysis,” former Councilor Jon Hinck told me. 

Compromise or Reform?

The current charter — the one with the mayor who looks more like a city council speaker — was designed to mitigate the effect of the public electing an unqualified or incompetent person. In setting such a low bar for the office, it is hard to expect much more out of it than what we have. It’s also concerning that given that the mayor’s staff has now been cut from two to one — as Mayor Strimling’s was this spring — it is conceivable that this, or another, mayor may seek advisors outside City Hall. Such unpaid advisors have a name in politics: Lobbyists. If an industry — such as healthcare, real estate, or finance — were so inclined; it could back its own candidate and then “advise” that person once in office.

And while it seems unlikely that the mayor and manager will ever voluntarily work together in Portland, it may be at least conceivable that a city manager may at some point grant a mayor access to department heads. Another step that the Council could take to strengthen the mayor’s position is to set the manager's term to coincide with that of the mayor, so that from the outset they would both agree that they can work together (at least in the beginning).

If Charter Reform ever becomes an option again, the choice would seem to be to eliminate either the mayor or the city manager. Or else we’d be stuck in this mess anew.

But if the goal is to ensure the professional management of government and electoral accountability, a revised charter could provide for a Deputy Mayor of Operations hired by the mayor and council who would have similar or equivalent public administration qualifications (and compensation) to a that of a city manager. This would call for an administrative manager with less of an interest in policy. In addition, the creation of a Speaker position for the City Council could help to bring cohesion to that body and a balance of power.

Several Councilors including Mavodones and Spencer Thibodeau have tried to put the issue to rest, often alluding to legal opinions given by Corporation Counsel West-Chuhta, and Peter DeTroy — although the bulk of DeTroy’s services seems to have been a (failed) mediation. But given the system’s structural deficiencies of the system; others, like Senator Ben Chipman, take a dimmer view:

“The power struggle will continue no matter how many legal opinions we get.”


Zack Barowitz can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Semiotics of Spring

About the nicest thing one can say about winters in Maine is that you don’t need to travel too far south to find warmer weather. Spring, though, is somewhat more fickle. There can be glorious warm weather from late April to late June, or there could be cold black rain running just short of Independence Day.

The fact is that we have five seasons in Maine: spring (such that it is), summer, fall, early winter, and late winter (sometimes referred to as tundra season). So to say that spring captures the imagination really means that you need to have a vivid one to recognize the early-year “shoulder” season.

In short, it doesn’t pay to look at weather — or a calendar — to see if spring has arrived. All this makes forecasting spring something of dark art, but the careful observer will make note of the following signs:

The snow piles are black.

You find yourself sweating in your down coat and realize that it's been several months since you’ve washed hats, scarves and mittens which have now turned the color of dried snot. But not to worry, the predominant autumnal browns and winter blacks have been ousted by puffy coats and fleece jackets in vernal hues.

Friends from out of state tentatively ask “is anything blooming up there?” There is an uncomfortable silence after you tell them that you think the forsythia is “just a few weeks away.”

Guys start shaving their winter beards. Some look almost young again. Women consider shaving their legs and bikini options.

Public Works sends out guys with backpack blowers to collect the street sand laid down from winter. What happens to that sand is a mystery, but lord knows our beaches can use them.

You decide that you are feeling well enough to go off your meds for a while.

Your house needs to be painted but your painter informs you that she isn’t available until October.

The snow melts exposing a season’s worth of dog shit on the neighbor’s lawn. This is thankfully a short-lived phenomena as the fecal matter merges into the mud in a matter of a few days — unless it snows again.

It is harder to get a table at restaurants.

You begin to contemplate a diet and gym membership.

Crust punks start arriving by freight train from New Orleans, but their appearance is more of a cameo before they head south again and return in July.

You no longer feel guilty for forgetting to put away the lawn furniture for winter.

A puffy jacket and a shorts seems like a sensible outfit and not just for letter carriers.

You call Unitil to have them shut off your gas, thus saving yourself the monthly $23 “service fee.” (You do know that you can do this don’t you?)

You regret having turned off the heat “so early.”

You open a window (this might necessitate first removing the plastic film).

Stores start being open on Sunday.

Out of town friends start contacting you, vaguely inquiring about summer plans. You decide to remove the cat litter box from the guest room.

It is still light out after dinner.

You ask things like “What are ramps and how do you cook them?”

People start complaining about “all the tourists.”


Zack Barowitz can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

In looking for a site to honor MLK, what’s old is what’s renewal

In what was thought to be a fait accompli, the Portland City Council Transportation Committee backed off from a proposal to change the name of Franklin Street to Martin Luther King Boulevard.

 

The episode represents something of a political nosebleed for City Manager Jon Jennings who brought the proposal to the Council committee. The motives are not entirely clear, but some have speculated that it was done to boost Councilor Jill Duson’s (who sits on the Transportation Committee) reelection bid against Democratic party upstart Joey Brunelle; or for Jennings to take personal ownership of the long, ongoing Franklin Street redesign process; or perhaps to build his own resume and civil rights bona-fides.

 

Opposition to the proposal was surprisingly fierce. The public hearing brought out old timers who remembered Franklin Street as it was and the urban renewal that made it what it wasn’t. Additionally, they did not want to see the name wiped out as well. Others at the public hearing suggested that Barack Obama or former State Representative Gerald Talbot (who was the first African-American in Maine to be elected to that office) might be more worthy of a memorial.

 

Instead, the Council Transportation Committee recommended a task force to find another way to honor Dr. King. The recommendation comes, however, with a certain amount of baggage. The City already had a task force that made recommendations to honor Dr. King. What's more, Jennings made it known from the get-go that he would not suffer any more task forces, as they take up staff time and take years to implement. Nevertheless, it's an age-old practice that whenever a committee has a problem that they cannot tackle, they simply create another committee.

 

Political machinations aside, two things are clear: People just don’t like the idea of changing the names of city streets, and the task of finding a physical location to honor Dr. King is not going to be easy. There just are not a whole lot of places worthy of Dr. King’s legacy. To make matters more difficult, Dr. King had never been to Portland, so any choice would lack historic gravity.

 

Given that renaming municipal streets could be all but off the table, where should a statue, plaque, or other memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. eventually go?

 

Lincoln Park should get consideration. The park that sits cater-corner from City Hall is in need of some sprucing up. It is slated to be restored to its pre-urban renewal size as part of the Franklin Street redesign, if and when it ever happens. In addition to activating a fairly dead space, the Abe Lincoln–Martin Luther King connection lends a tidy historical theme.

 

The Portland Portion of I-295 presents some of the same concerns as Franklin Street insofar that constructing it meant destroying homes and neighborhoods for highways that facilitated white flight. But it is a very visible site and would give people something to think about as they drive through Portland on their way to Falmouth, Freeport and Augusta.

 

Congress Square Park is yet another urban renewal site in search of a warmer and more meaningful identity. A Dr. King monument could bring a greater sense of purpose to that project.

 

The Rose Garden adjacent to Deering Oaks would be a lovely setting for a monument to Dr. King, were it not for the fact that the cut-through has relegated the whole area to that of a giant traffic island between the park and Forest Avenue.

 

Saint John/Valley Street has the advantage of being a historically black neighborhood. The railway employed many African-Americans who then settled around Union Station. Unfortunately, it isn’t the most scenic corridor and the streets should really bear the names of local families, notably the Cummings. Unfortunately, this was proposed several years ago by then Councilor David Marshall and met with neighborhood resistance.

 

All of these sites are in some way, shape, or form the product of urban renewal. Lincoln Park, Saint John Street, and the Rose Garden were all negatively affected; while 295 and Congress Square Plaza were created as a result of it. Another urban renewal site, Lobsterman Park in front of the Nickleodeon, was recently christened John Menario Plaza at the behest of Manager Jennings. John Menario was the City Manager who presided over much of the urban renewal. The plaza’s visible and central location could be a suitable place for a King monument. Of course, the plaque honoring John Menario would then have to be moved; perhaps to some low-elevation point in the median strip on Franklin Street.

Sidewalk Politics

 

Among all the emotional political issues in our city, sidewalk-paving surfaces — brick, in particular — rank surprisingly high.

Opinions are split. One West End resident has been begging the city to restore her sidewalk to brick for years. Others would love to be rid of theirs. As with curly hair or pretty much any subjective measure of beauty, people want what they don’t have and have what they don’t want.

The city code is that “on-peninsula” sidewalks are paved with brick while “off-peninsula” sidewalks are not. This is the policy ... except for when it isn’t. Some off-peninsula neighborhoods have brick sidewalks, while some on-peninsula blocks don’t. And it isn’t exactly clear what the boundary lines of the peninsula are: Western Prom? Saint John Street? I-295? Stroudwater to Woodfords Corner?.

CONCRETE KOOL-AID

 

At a recent neighborhood meeting, a resident noted the deplorable condition of her sidewalk. Mayor Ethan Strimling said that brick’s only virtue is aesthetic; likewise, former Councilor Ed Suslovic expressed a similar opinion on a neighborhood walk. According to email records between planning staff and the developers of the Chipotle and the large Schlotterbeck & Foss building in Bayside, City Manager Jon Jennings urged developers to apply for a change from brick to concrete. It may be the only subject he and Mayor Strimling agree upon.

I am not sure why or how it was concluded that concrete is a superior paving material to brick. I suspect that when someone sees a sidewalk in need of repair, they don’t see poor installation or decades of deferred maintenance; they see a weathered material. In the case of most of the older neighborhoods, that material is brick.

I spoke with Greg Toher Jr., a master mason and landscape architect familiar with sidewalk engineering, about the problems with the construction of sidewalks.

Although there are numerous factors that send sidewalks into disrepair, among the most common are tree roots. Different surfaces react differently to roots: bricks undulate, concrete heaves, and asphalt channels. Those who think that concrete doesn’t crack have not seen the sorry condition of the curb ramp in front of City Hall, the sidewalk in front of the Portland Expo, or the newly poured sidewalk in my (technically) on-peninsula neighborhood.

On the other hand, Portland’s brick sidewalks are classic — not for their aesthetics, but for their durability. There are brick sidewalks well over 30 years old that are in pretty decent shape. The old method was to space the bricks far apart and set them in place with sand, which allows them to settle back in place after frost heaves. Brick sidewalks are easily repaired; all you need is a guy with a rake, a broom, and some sand.

The modern method is to space the bricks much closer together. And the substrate has to be carefully constructed: “I’m giving away my secrets,” Toher told me. “You start with 2” of compacted gravel, then 2” of asphalt, then a cement/sand mix, and then the brick. As it rains, the cement sets up so you don’t get heaves.”

Concrete, on the other hand, cannot be patched or repaired. It needs to be torn out, carted away, and re-poured. It is labor-, materials-, and energy-intensive; and cement plants are environmental hazards.

This is not to say that concrete and asphalt don't have their virtues. They are perfectly suitable for certain applications (asphalt is paired nicely with granite curbs), but they should not be used to replace a useful, attractive, and historic material on the basis of being better or safer, because they are not.

APRON STRINGS

 

In a memo to the City Council, Portland Director of Planning and Urban Development Jeff Levine quoted costs per square yard of asphalt, concrete, and brick at $50, $115, and $150 respectively. He also noted the importance of brick driveways on brick sidewalks “as a means of reinforcing the pedestrian realm.” Indeed, asphalt over brick looks terrible and prioritizes automobiles as they drive over sidewalks.

 

Constructing brick driveway aprons takes the work of a specially skilled mason. Tony Aceto, the President of Maineway Landscaping, has done, he tells me, “80 percent of Portland’s new sidewalks.” He noted the various ADA requirements for driveways and the methods of laying bricks. “They are stronger when laid on their side,” he explained, “and I’ve done sidewalks and drives where the bricks stand on their ends.”

KICKING AGAINST THE BRICKS

 

Just as a concrete building isn't inherently better than a brick building, the same holds true for sidewalks. Concrete is a wonderfully versatile material, and brick is essential to the character of much of Portland and holds up well in harsh conditions. Ultimately, what matters most is the context, budget, quality of installation, and maintenance.

If we do continue the piecemeal change from brick to concrete, we’ll only be trading broken-up brick sidewalks for broken-up concrete ones, and then bemoaning the loss of historic character.

May the New Year bring back basic needs for everyone

Housing was the issue in Portland for 2016. In fact, it was also the issue of 2015.

2015 Redux

Late in the year, the Portland Press Herald ran a series of stories on the housing shortage declaring the situation a crisis. If you would like to review their "No Vacancy" series, pretty much any subsequent Press Herald article links to it. The series raised awareness. 

The coverage coincided with a referendum on the development of 58 Fore Street, a ballot measure that was ostensibly about preserving harbor views but ultimately became about development. The debate was heated, emotional, polarizing, and (at least for the winning side) costly. Ultimately, the measure was defeated soundly, clearing a path for the redevelopment of the Portland Company Complex. This marked the first real victory for development after a string of defeats including the equally divisive Congress Square Park referendum (whose developers used the same PR consultants). Much of the force of the argument was that the development would add to the housing supply — a proposed 638 units.

 

Evictions

Meanwhile, in neighborhoods like Parkside and Libbytown — on the fringes of downtown — word got out that mass evictions (or “non-renewal of month-to-month leases”) were taking place. Many started to worry that Portland was destined to be like Vancouver or San Francisco, a place for only the very rich and very poor, with ever-escalating real estate prices. Social service agencies like Preble Street and an ad hoc coalition of groups demanded emergency action.

 

The Strim

In 2015's rematch of the previous mayoral election, second place finisher Ethan Strimling defeated incumbent Mike Brennan. Strimling’s campaign message was “Bring Portland Together,” but he mostly kept silent and allowed Brennan’s ineffectiveness and unpopularity with City staff and Council carry the day.

 

To address the housing crisis, Strimling expanded the the Council Housing Committee to five members. After several large public meetings and shortly before the committee presented the Housing Insecurity Package (a series of modest renter protections designed not to inhibit development), Strimling jumped in with a more aggressive set of protection policies. At which point, two of the attorneys on the Council, Jon Hinck and Spencer Thibodeau (who specializes in real estate), tried to salvage the situation with a series of compromise amendments, only to be voted down by the full council. In her blog, councilor Belinda Ray rejected several amendments as either redundant or “illegal,” stating that they replicated or contradicted state law. The original package passed and this year the committee was quietly restored to the traditional three members.

 

By the end of the year, Mayor Strimling's woes with council and staff were similar to that of his predecessor, but much better publicized — charter reform anyone?

 

Gentrifucked

Gentrification is the process by which demand for upscale housing outstrips supply. This leads to the development of luxury housing and the refurbishment of workforce and affordable housing, leading to displacement. The past three years have been a pretty good case in point. Real estate prices have been rising despite Portland’s population remaining flat (for about 20 years), and a relative boom in housing construction — much of it ongoing.

 

The causes and effects of gentrification include: low-income people replaced by higher-income people, fewer people occupying larger units, redlining (the practice of selectively raising prices on targeted demographics, often people of color), units purchased as second homes, and units being turned into Airbnb shell apartments. The sad reality is that due to the high costs of new construction (particularly land and labor costs), new units are necessarily priced at the high end of the market, or heavily subsidized.

 

Demand for high-end units remained strong through the spring and summer rental season as there was no discernable decrease in price due to the increased supply.

 

What's next year going to look like?

Despite the high prices, political dysfunction, and divided population, there are hopeful signs. 

With hundreds of more units popping up, prices are sure to flatten, if not drop.

  • City planning staff seems to understand the situation and are always willing to talk with citizens.

  • A regional and Transit Oriented Development (TOD) approach to housing is gaining traction. Better public and alternative transportation networks will make off-peninsula neighborhood centers and thoroughfares denser and more attractive.

  • While not everyone is on board with Transit Oriented Development, a recent report co-sponsored by USM Muskie School, Portland Society for Architecture (PSA), Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce (PRCC), and Creative Portland (CP) recommended a regional approach to providing new affordable/workforce housing. Although the report itself was uneven and a little sloppy (e.g., one of the study areas, St. John Valley, was incorrectly identified as “St. John’s Valley”) it is significant insofar as groups that in past years had not given much thought or voice to housing policies (PSA, CP) or have not been known for being champions of progressive causes (the Chamber) could agree upon, or at least co-sign, a set of forward-thinking recommendations..

Transit Oriented Development could be at the center of policies that encourage affordable workforce housing, but questions remain: Will the development dollars be there? Will off-peninsula neighborhoods embrace a denser, more walkable environment? Will new arrivals to these areas be willing to take the bus?

And there are other measures that city government could take to reduce the cost of home ownership, and the overall cost of living, but unfortunately, I’ve reached my word limit for 2016. Happy New Year; may it provide basic needs for all.

Sick Building: The Maine Medical Center's $512,000,000 Expansion

Maine Medical Center dug through its couch cushions and came up with $512 million to spend on an expansion of its Portland campus. Although the plan doesn't add any new beds, it does call for 128 new rooms — which the hospital must have in order to meet new demands of patient care and stay competitive in a growing industry.


In addition to being a renowned hospital, Maine Medical Center is one of the largest employers in the state. So when it says it wants to build, it's fairly easy for officials to respond "how high?"


MMC's proposed expansion will create hundreds of jobs in the health care, construction and IT sectors. But those jobs come at a cost, and those that pay are unlikely to reap many benefits; a large hospital's effect on a neighborhood can be akin to having a cement block dropped on a flower pot.


So why is this?


Hospitals are notoriously among the most difficult types of buildings to design. The sheer volume of people, technology and movement, coupled with the turnover of all of the above, make their containment nearly impossible. Throw in the challenge of creating a building that is both sterile and uplifting, and it's enough to drive the most talented designer to review RFPs for wastewater treatment plants.


Given the difficulties and contingencies of designing a hospital, it's little wonder that their exteriors often appear an afterthought. Situated high upon the Western Promenade, Maine Med's current configuration is an undistinguished agglomeration of stark Modernist edifices and brutalist parking structures crowded around a (somewhat gloomy) original 1874 structure. Fortress-like facades have rendered blight beyond the castle walls to the boundary streets below. Gilman, Congress, Crescent, Wescott, Bramhall and Forest streets are all fairly run-down and have been for decades despite their proximity to some of the most valuable real estate in Maine.


Portland-area residents have every reason to be concerned with the planned Maine Med expansion; the shadows will loom longer, the winds will whip colder, parking garages will become larger, and the traffic will grow denser — adding to the spread of decay.


Ironically, the westward roll of commercial and residential development along Congress Street from Longfellow Square to Thompson's Point is hot, with hundreds of proposed housing units, restaurants and (of course) breweries. The break in the path is smack in the area designated for the bulk of the expansion. The quarter-mile stretch of Congress Street from Salvage BBQ to Bramhall Square has just two commercial spaces (La Bodega Latina and Portland Glass), not including the permanently "unfinished" storefronts in the MMC parking garage. The blight is attributable to a monotonous pedestrian experience: a steep hill, fast traffic and bleak streetscape of retaining walls and parking garages. It should come as little consolation that a recent beautification effort included hanging banners declaring competency in "Urology," "Gynecology" and "Cancer."


Were this projected expansion slated for an isolated green expanse (such as the MMC Scarborough campus), the peripheral pedestrian experience would be of little consequence. But in a dense urban environment, great care must be taken to scale and form but also to use.
Far from being a monument that sucks in automobiles, the hospital necessarily should learn how to interact with the street, starting with an improved pedestrian experience that heals the neighborhoods on its borders. Street-level commercial development — visitors' cafe, gift shop, pharmacy, restaurant and even a bookstore — will not only better serve hospital customers but make for a healthy bottom line, both for the institution and the city as a whole.

Sick building: Medical expansion comes at an aesthetic cost

Maine Medical Center dug through its couch cushions and came up with $512,000,000 to spend on an expansion of its Portland campus. Although the plan doesn’t add any new beds, it does call for 128 new rooms — which the hospital must have to meet new demands of patient care; or to stay competitive in a growing industry.

In addition to being a renowned hospital, Maine Medical Center (MMC) is one of the largest employers in the state. So when they say they want to build, it is fairly easy for officials to respond “How high?”

MMC’s proposed expansion will create hundreds of jobs in the healthcare, construction, and IT sectors. But those jobs come at a cost, and those that pay are unlikely to reap much benefit as a large hospital’s effect on a neighborhood can be akin to having a cement block dropped on a flower pot.

So why is this?

Hospitals are notoriously among the most difficult types of buildings to design. The sheer volume of people, technology, and movement — coupled with the turnover of all of the above, make their containment nearly impossible. Throw in the challenge of creating a building that is both sterile and uplifting and it is enough to drive the most talented designer to review RFPs for wastewater treatment plants.

Given the difficulties and contingencies of designing a hospital, it is little wonder that their exterior often appears an afterthought. Situated high upon the Western Promenade, Maine Med’s current configuration is an undistinguished agglomeration of stark Modernist edifices and brutalist parking structures crowded around a (somewhat gloomy) original 1874 structure. Fortress-like facades have rendered blight beyond the castle walls to the boundary streets below. Gilman, Congress, Crescent, Wescott, Bramhall, and Forest Streets are all fairly run down; and have been for decades despite their proximity to some of the most valuable real estate in the State of Maine.

Ironically, the westward roll of commercial and residential development along Congress Street from Longfellow Square to Thompson’s Point is hot, with hundreds of proposed housing units, restaurants, and (of course) breweries. The break in the path is smack in the area designated for the bulk of the expansion. The quarter mile stretch of Congress Street from Salvage BBQ to Bramhall Square has just two commercial spaces (La Bodega Latina and Portland Glass) not including the “unfinished” storefronts in the MMC parking garage. 

The blight is attributable to a monotonous pedestrian experience: a steep hill, fast traffic, and bleak streetscape of retaining walls and parking garages. It should come as little consolation that a recent beautification effort included the hanging banners declaring competency in “Urology,” “Gynecology,” and “Cancer.”

(Portland)-area residents have every reason to be concerned that with the planned Maine Med expansion, the shadows will loom longer, the winds will whip colder, parking garages will become larger, and the traffic will grow denser — adding to the spread of decay.

Were this projected expansion slated for an isolated green field site (such as the MMC Scarborough campus) the peripheral pedestrian experience would be of little consequence. But in a dense urban environment, great care must be taken to scale and form, but also to use.

Far from being a monument which sucks in automobiles; the hospital necessarily should learn how to interact with the street, starting with an improved pedestrian experience that heals the neighborhoods on its borders. Street level commercial development — visitors’ cafe, gift shop, pharmacy, restaurant, and even a bookstore — will not only better serve hospital customers but it will make for a healthy bottom line, both for the institution and the city as a whole.

Zack Barowitz is a flâneur; his work can be seen at ZacharyBarowitz.com

 

Green creep: When wilderness overtakes city streets

The term “Green Streets” suggests a healthy Wonka-esque utopia of lush boulevards where children and cyclists may pluck ripe fruit from a carbon neutral and bee friendly landscape. The more common reality, however, evokes a dystopian cinematic terrain, perhaps Planet of the Apes.

Sidewalks, whether constructed of brick, asphalt or cement, are subject to cracks and deferred maintenance, weeds that grow in fissures and abandoned tree wells. This time of year many sidewalks have reverted (or re-verdant-ed) to a prelapsarian state of fecund wilderness.

Reversion to grassland is common in abandoned subdivisions, shopping malls, and parking lots gives these landscapes a post-apocalyptic (as well as  a post-automotive) charm. But when the affected areas are functioning sidewalks, they pose serious barriers to pedestrians; especially those with physical impairments.

Sidewalks are the lifeblood of any healthy city. Aside from being transportation routes for pedestrians they are critical for storefront business who know that walk-in trade presents a severe advantage over patrons in cars who are obliged to stop and park.

And while there is a wild beauty to overgrown hard paved surfaces, in the case of sidewalks it can be too much of a good thing; and it certainly isn’t to everyone’s taste. Overgrown weeds, bushes, trees nd other plantings that sneak from private yards into the public space pose the biggest encroachments; but for sheer audacity, homeowners who extend their lawns straight over the sidewalk are nonpareil.

So what can be done?

Sidewalk weeds are the responsibility of the abutting landowner. However, as in the case with snow removal, enforcement is likely to be complaint-based. A grey area among the green areas are the tree wells, which may or may not contain trees but almost always contain weeds.

This being Portland we have an ordinance for just about everything including how high the sidewalk overhang can be from a tree on private property (7 feet), but execution is always a challenge. The de facto policy is to leave it up to the individual homeowners: If they want to remove weeds from the sidewalk and cut back the flora from their yard then great; if not, well that is OK, too.

As with street cleaning and snow removal, sidewalk weed management could really benefit from a frontage-fee system. Landowners (including non-profit tax-free organizations) would pay approximately six dollars per foot of street frontage annually (approximately $180 for an typical residential lot) which would cover all services and maintenance of the street and sidewalk in front of their property. Homeowners who currently do all their own weeding, cleaning, and shovelling would end up paying more (as would those who do nothing); but those who are now paying others for the services should see a significant savings.

Not only would a frontage fee provide an economy of scale, but we would know that the work would get done.

 

Baby block

What is the smallest street in Portland? While there may be several metrics my vote is out on Peaks Island where the portion of Island Avenue from A Street to Willow Street is about 32 feet, 8 inches. It comes complete with street signs, desire path sidewalk, and a house whose lot line seems to stretch from curb to curb. It must be nice to have a two-corner lot and no neighbors.

 

Zack Barowitz is a flâneur; his work can be seen at ZacharyBarowitz.com.

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