Portland’s future without Keep Portland Livable

Any urban design project can take years of your life. Ask us or ask anyone involved in changing a road.

Any urban design project can take years of your life. Ask us or anyone involved in changing a road.

From the origin of Keep Portland Livable, we have wished, perhaps naively, for it to be three things:

  • A clearinghouse for information about the city’s mushrooming redevelopment;
  • A GrowSmart Portland, successfully advocating for good urban design for these new developments; and
  • An opponent of the original, car-centric proposal for the Bayside redevelopment known as Midtown.

We achieved as much as we deemed wise on the third priority, being the sole group to modify the Midtown development in any meaningful way.

But we have discovered that the first two goals—keeping track of all major new developments and advocating for good urban design across the cityscape—are beyond the capacity of a volunteer community group. Even if possible that informing and advocating would be, in our view, of questionable value in the coming few years.

Just the gathering of citywide development information is more than a fulltime job. Ask anyone at the Press Herald or the Forecaster. So, too, is advocacy for good urban design in any effective way.

Beyond those practical considerations, the ability of Keep Portland Livable to achieve those goals has been compromised by two major factors, one related to the city’s conceptual structure and the other related to how Keep Portland Livable is seen.

  • The strength of neighborhoods remains a good thing in so many ways, but each is siloed in its own concerns. Each island sees itself as a planet only barely related to the next, and, oh lord, none being anything like the mainland! Meanwhile, the off-peninsula disdains any mention in the same breath as the downtown peninsula.
  • Meanwhile, there is the reluctance of some to affiliate with Keep Portland Livable because of the controversy surrounding our insistence on a modified Midtown development. We are seen less like an urban Good Housekeeping magazine and more like Shooting Illustrated.

And even if we could somehow leap over those hurdles, we have had to ask ourselves the fundamental question: Can we help alter the course of the river of redevelopment already flowing through our city?

There will always be a role for small groups active in Portland's public life.

There will always be a role for small groups active in Portland’s public life.

Our answer is: We think not.

The tidal wave of retiring baby boomers, developers chasing the next hot market, a City Hall relatively impervious to public concern … these are forces beyond any group to bend in the short term.

We think the city will enter the future partly in the riverbed of the past—advancing incrementally, neighborhood by neighborhood, development by development—and partly in a new channel—advancing on a crest of investment by local developers and a strong, new leadership team in City Hall and elsewhere that will prompt change throughout the city, much of it for the better.

In the next five to 10 years, the public certainly will have roles to play in determining a new citywide Comprehensive Plan and in changing neighborhoods’ zoning.

However, in our view during the next two or three years, the public at large, advocacy groups like ours, and individual activists will have little impact on this floodtide of change.

We of Keep Portland Livable have already devoted the greater part of three years to the intense effort of modifying the biggest single development in the city’s history. We are not in a position to commit another three years and more to shoveling sand against the already incoming King tide.

We certainly wish it were otherwise. In at least one area, we are gravely concerned by what we are already seeing—the gutting of the city’s middle class and its families. As we’ve noted in recent posts, the better paying jobs needed to pay for new housing in the city are not being created, and the bulk of the new housing is not aimed at families anyway.

Furthermore, there is almost no doubt—now that the City Council has enacted a belated, half-hearted inclusionary zoning ordinance for affordable housing—that the city’s population will become increasing split between recently arrived rich retirees and the impoverishing-in-place poor and very poor.

To cope with the coming massive physical and social changes, we in Portland need to broaden our public conversations.

To cope with the coming massive physical and social changes, we in Portland need to broaden our public conversations.

Given anything like this current City Council, nothing we of Keep Portland Livable could imagine doing would alter this powerful wayward course from reaching its unfortunate destination of a shiny new urban physical façade encasing a city hollowed out socially.

Meanwhile, formal efforts to generate public input or to create public consensus about the city’s future are under way and include:

  • Developing a new City Comprehensive Plan.
  • Using that to create a new zoning code.
  • A youthful endeavor called Portland Participates, and
  • GrowSmart Maine’s community visioning for the city.

We’re in favor of all of those efforts and hope they separately or together make a difference. But each will take years to create and years more to implement, assuming the best.

As for effectiveness, the GrowSmart kickoff event in June brought together the usual collection of activists – elderly and white, including ourselves — who couldn’t even agree on what success of a community process would look like.

We members of Keep Portland Livable may participate in some or all of those efforts as individuals, but we won’t be participating as a formal group.

We know that the strength of our city, its resilience in the face of the massive impacts of social and climate change now underway will depend on the degree to which all of us in all of our neighborhoods and all of our groups are talking to one another, continuously, civilly, and meaningfully.

For those critical efforts going forward, we of Keep Portland Livable will be with you individually in body but as a group only in spirit.

We are deeply gratified for the community support that enabled us to have the positive impact we did, whose after-effects are ongoing.

Keep up the conversations, and fight when you must for a better city that we all love so much.

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