Those who doubt that the City Council is not all-out in favor of development of almost any density and any height might look back carefully at the week just past.
On Monday night (12/16), the City Council voted 9-0 to double the allowable building heights on one of the most visible properties in the city. As a result, height limitations on Thompson’s Point jumped from 65 to 120 feet. The council also waived a density requirement that prevented the developers from exceeding 60 units per acre.
There’s good news and bad news in those actions. The good news first. Thompson’s point is definitely a gateway to the city and is surrounded by water on three sides. Its additional building height will serve as an arrival announcement to the city and distract from Maine Medical’s gargantuan mass on the Western Prom, without necessarily inflicting negative impacts on an adjacent neighborhood.
The bad news: The limit of 60 units per acre was already 8-10 times the average for the peninsula as a whole, already one of the most dense urban centers north of Boston. The permission to go over that limit was tied only to Master Development Plan approval. Master Development Plans are for projects that will take up to 10 years to build out. So the Council has now ruled that the bigger the project the denser it can be.
Since mega-projects are by nature different than the urban form of the rest of Portland – huge where we are small; massive and uniform where we are fine-grained and diverse – allowing them to be further out of character and out of scale from the rest of the city seems the wrong way to go. Especially when these rules are applied in or next to existing neighborhoods – as in lower Bayside, at the Portland Company, or along West Commercial Street.
In the same evening, the Council voted 6-3 to allow more height in built-up neighborhoods, even where that height is out of scale with adjacent buildings and even where that additional height will obstruct views of iconic features of the city.
The neighborhood is Munjoy Hill, the building is a four-story block atop Congress Street, and the iconic structure is the Observatory. Even the councilors who opposed the height exemption did so only because it seemed too much like a special contract zone for this project alone.
Indeed, one of the nay votes, Kevin Donoghue, the Hill’s councilor, had told members of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association the week before that a five-foot height increase “was only incremental.” He used the same argument last spring in favoring the 30-foot increase in Tower One of Midtown, down in Bayside, even though it changed the alignment of tall buildings from pointing up toward the Congress Street spine to a wall across the view of the city’s true midtown.
David Marshall, like Donoghue another opponent of the Munjoy Hill exemption, who also voted for the Bayside height exemption and who also like Donoghue was elected as a Green Party candidate, went farther in a personal interview, saying, “I think Portland deserves some tall buildings.”
He is clearly not alone. Stay tuned. Approvals for taller buildings are coming to a neighborhood near you.