Why is Portland Playing Developer?


Those who argue that this Midtown project is the only possible future for Bayside are arguing from a most peculiar standpoint. They are saying that this city-manufactured blueprint for development that violates the neighborhood’s own wishes and the city’s own codes is the only way this area can be developed. Hmmm.

It’s one thing for the city to acquire the land as it did a decade ago, and to extend a street through the area, both traditional municipal actions and good things.

It’s also good the city dealt with the contaminated soil, but the flooding of sea level rise deters further development in lower Bayside and the city has known about the extent of the problem for more than two years and has yet to act. The City can only fault itself for this drag on development in lower Bayside.

Meanwhile, what’s truly peculiar is for the city to act like a developer. When was the last time the city of Portland drew up the template for a private development, especially against its own development rules? When have committees designed anything well. Isn’t a camel a horse designed by a committee?

Here in lower Bayside, the City has been playing developer for more than a decade, and look how it has turned out. Where the neighborhood wanted a dense herd of pony buildings, the city is promoting four mastodons and two dead dinosaurs.

This City-led charge for an all or nothing development in lower Bayside has caused one letdown after another – whether civic center, university school, or office park. Following these repeated failures has the city even once changed strategy and offered small lots for diverse development – a herd ponies instead of a few mastodons – while using federal funds to extend the streets and raise them as needed? No.

One would think the city, which makes the rules for development, would at least require a prospective developer to play by the city-adopted Bayside rules. But if you think that, you’d be wrong in this Midtown case.

The City signed a contract with The Federated Companies that not only did not require Federated to abide by the Bayside Vision or existing land use ordinances based on that, but actually obliged the City to go to bat for waivers and exemptions to those rules sought by Federated.

Did the City do what it should have done, namely, go back to the neighborhood to see if Bayside wanted to change the vision of its future? No. The City simply went to the City Council to change the height limits, and then, and now, to the Planning board seeking the changes to urban form that will allow this out-of-scale, out-of-character development to go forward despite its multiple contradictions of what is wanted by the neighborhood.

The neighborhood has been so beaten down by the multiple city-led false starts that some of its leaders and some of its residents are grudgingly accepting this project as the only deal on the table, however flawed it is. That’s the primary underlying false choice the City and its fellow travelers are promoting: this monstrous wall between Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods or nothing.

Isn’t it time for the City to stop overriding the neighborhood, to stop playing developer, and to offer the land up for those who want to build within the rules the neighborhood and the city have agreed should be used? And shouldn’t the City first adopt a sea level rise policy and announce which streets it will extend and which it will raise?

So many better things could happen – good paying jobs, properly scaled buildings, and sunny, central open spaces that generate a vibrant 21st century walkable neighborhood – if the city would return to its traditional role of making development possible, instead of trying to dictate what development will, and will not, take place. Especially when it dictates projects that violate its own rules.

The City is the root of the problems with this development, not those of us who are pointing out the city-created problems.

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