Portland Company highlights flawed planning process

The Portland Company Complex on the waterfront below Fore Street (Photo by Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald)

The Portland Company Complex on the waterfront below Fore Street (Photo by Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald)

This month, the Keep Portland Livable meeting from 5:00-6:30 pm Sept. 17 in Coffee by Design at 1 Diamond Street in East Bayside will feature a presentation by the Soul of Portland and its campaign to create a scenic view ordinance in Portland and to correct current failings in the zoning code.

The procedural problems include vagueness, loopholes, waivers, and staff overruling council directives.

Keep Portland Livable is not yet taking a position on the Portland Company development—the developer has not yet made a proposal for the location on the waterfront below Munjoy Hill—but the way City Hall has treated the developer in these early stages of review has already revealed major flaws in the development review process we have seen before, and new ones as well.

While being hundreds of pages long, the city’s zoning rules are too vague to provide developers with tangible guidance as to how to shape their developments and too vague to assure neighbors that what will be built will fit with the neighborhood.

Even when the rules are specific, a City Council and a Planning Board ready to approve zoning changes and waivers for any major development despite considerable resident opposition further erodes citizen confidence in the city’s land use rules and review process.

In this unclear environment, city staff intervenes via behind-the-scenes negotiations and partisan recommendations to the Council and Planning Board. In the case of the Portland Company, staff has overruled a critically important decision by the 2004 City Council about building heights.

As they apply to the Portland Company so far, these review flaws have played out like this so far:

The developer, CPB2, requested a zoning change without submitting a development plan, a first for a large site. The form for requesting a zoning change asks the applicant to describe the proposed use of the property involved and to “provide a site plan of the property showing existing and proposed improvements, including such features as buildings, parking, driveways, walkways, landscape and property boundaries.”

In virtually every application, previous developers submitted plans as a means for justifying their requests. Even though the application asks for this information, it is not codified by ordinance. CPB2 obtained a ruling from the City’s attorney that it was not a legal requirement, so instead of providing a site plan the developer just stated that after the zoning change, the plan would be “existing conditions.”  (The Soul of Portland referendum would amend the ordinance to require this site plan submission.)

Despite significant neighborhood opposition and despite lack of a plan justifying the change, the City Council changed the zoning, as they had done for Midtown and would do soon afterwards for McCauley High School, all without making any concessions to residents.

What else can these results demonstrate than that the 3-minute talk timer and the lines behind microphones granted to the public are simply window-dressing for the City’s predetermined ideas and foregone conclusions.

The same night as the zoning change—June 1-2, 2015—came other, news overlooked, but worthy of a headline.

The way residents can understand a development’s visual impacts best is by seeing a 3-D model of it in the neighborhood context. Acknowledging that, the city in 2014 adopted a Master Development Plan process for big, multi-phase developments, just like the Portland Company site.

And from the start, Jim Brady, one of CPB2’s principals, said he would take the project through the Master Development Plan process, one of his proofs that the development would be adequately reviewed so that no one need worry about the zoning change. Similarly, the Planning staff and Planning Board repeatedly dismissed the concerns of the public, saying they would be taken care of through the Master Development Plan process.

But the night of June 1st, when Mayor Brennan said the developer had agreed to that process, Brady rushed to the microphone to deny, vigorously, that he’d ever agreed to that process, and in fact, the developers have since said they will not use that process.

So no one other than the developer and his cherry-picked audiences will get to see the development’s impacts. That’s because the Master Development Plan process is simply suggested for big projects, not required.

All we the public are going to see are the developer’s selected viewpoints, as lovingly rendered by their chosen artist.

Even then, visual eyewash is not a submission for approval, so the developer can draw anything he wants, the pretty picture having committed him to nothing like that at all. Viewer beware!

Then comes the critical question of heights permitted on the Portland Company site by the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

A 2004 study of building heights on the eastern waterfront established all heights east of an extension of Mountfort Street (which includes the Portland Company) being based on the low, level floodplain height. The City Council adopted that base standard to prevent a developer from “grabbing a foothold on Fore Street, averaging grade and going up higher,” as one staffer put it.

But CPB2 seeks to grab just such a foothold, seeking to build three stories above Fore Street, which itself is already up to 88 feet above the floodplain. Because of the inclusion in the “draft final” height report of the wrong illustration, city planning staff now supports the developer’s intentions, subverting the will of the City Council and the directive of the Comprehensive Plan.

Overturning Council action by interpretation now joins vagueness, insulation from public will, pro-development bias, ordinance vagueness, and loopholes as reasons for Portland residents to challenge both City Hall and major developers.

To hear more about these issues come to our meeting  Sept. 17. The stakes for Portland are high.

 

3 Responses to Portland Company highlights flawed planning process

  1. John Strauchs September 9, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

    Although I have a home in Lyman, I an concerned about Portland. Having read this important article, I am even more concerned.

    • Fred Kilfoil September 11, 2015 at 5:34 am #

      Once again, I applaud both of you for taking the lead on this kind of issue. Great job. I particularly like the following comments:

      “…While being hundreds of pages long, the city’s zoning rules are too vague to provide developers with tangible guidance as to how to shape their developments and too vague to assure neighbors that what will be built will fit with the neighborhood.

      Even when the rules are specific, a City Council and a Planning Board ready to approve zoning changes and waivers for any major development despite considerable resident opposition further erodes citizen confidence in the city’s land use rules and review process….” Keep dogging the City Council and Planning Board to iron these issues out.

  2. Denise Preisser September 13, 2015 at 7:51 pm #

    I have lived in Portland for 13 years and have attended many public hearings on this issue as well as others in regards to developers. The power this planning board is demonstrating, and the lack of city council listening to it’s constituency is of much concern to me.

    If council always follows staff who work for the planning board, then why do we vote for council and mayor to make our voice heard? Is there back door dealings going on that the public is not aware of? I’m starting to think so. It is time to make our voices heard. Vote Yes on #2.

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