December 21, 2013

Maine Voices: Still time to craft a suitable compromise on midtown project in Bayside

Instead of 235 market-rate apartments, the city should offer to approve 125 apartments on the same footprint.

By Patricia Garrett

PORTLAND — Coverage of the Bayside development proposal called midtown by Press Herald reporter Randy Billings has been good. “Building on history in Bayside” (Dec. 9), which outlined the long and difficult history of Bayside development and lack thereof, along with the history of the parcel that would become midtown, was especially enlightening.

about the author

Patricia Garrett is a resident of Portland.

Only partly captured in the coverage of the Dec. 10 Planning Board public hearing, though, was the relatively high drama of the event (“Portland delays decision on major Bayside development,” Dec. 11).

In fact, the number of people who came to speak in opposition to the plan seemed unprecedented to the Planning Board chairwoman, who asked rhetorically, after the lengthy and impassioned comment period, “Where have you been?”

That question puzzled those of us who have been part of the growing opposition to the plan since at least June. We have written, called, published letters to the editor, started websites and been paid only lip service by a Planning Board and City Council that still seem intent on their goal of approving this solid wall of development, regardless of the level of opposition.

Most citizens depend on their elected and appointed officials to keep them informed of important development in the city’s life, especially in this age of social media.

While the meetings and workshops on this project have been open to the public, as required by law, most of the real negotiations have gone on behind the scenes and been reported in a monotone designed to avoid gaining attention. In fact, as people have become aware (largely through the efforts of KeepPortlandLivable.com) of the scale and the financial risk of this development, opposition has grown dramatically.

From information that emerged at the meeting and in local media coverage, though, it appears that a compromise could still be crafted with something for all parties.

The purchase of the land by Miami-based Federated (about 3 acres of peninsula property for $2.3 million) is contingent on the city’s approval of the developer’s plans. Instead of 235 market-rate apartments, the city should offer approval for 125 apartments, 5 percent affordable (that’s seven affordable apartments of 125 total) on the same tower footprint, and require a much smaller parking garage to accommodate those apartments and the smaller amount of retail on the first floor of garage and tower.

If this occurred, the developer could still purchase the portion of the parcel used for the buildings for the meager $700,000 per acre price, the neighborhood would get a more manageable number of new residents, new retail and new jobs, and the view obstruction, street access and wind and shadow problems would be much reduced. Some of the retail and residential support people might be able to afford one of those seven apartments.

The city could put streets through the rest of the parcel, possibly using some of the federal loans currently destined for Federated and the parking garage. The newly created smaller blocks could be offered to local developers for mixed use including businesses, creating additional, local jobs. This would truly meet the Bayside Vision.

The descriptions of the $9 million in “federal funds” that the city would channel to the developer for the currently planned 700-car garage have often implied that these funds would be essentially free money, with the benefit to the city being the addition of 700 parking spaces (though in a relatively inaccessible area).

However, the Portland Daily Sun reports that the total funding is actually $12 million, with $1.8 million (16 percent) as a grant and the rest as loans, which the city plans to repay with property taxes from development. Thus, the city is assuming a $9 million risk that the development will be successful.

The financial success and stability of earlier large development projects such as Franklin Towers, Portland House and Back Bay Tower has not been high. Borrowing less will cut the risk to the city.

These suggestions could be the beginning of a route to compromise. In the end, though, persuading people in power to hear another perspective is key.

The hundreds of Portland residents who have become alarmed by the scale of the proposed development and gone out of their way to express opposition should be heard. A compromise should be negotiated for smaller buildings for this project, more streets, some green space, more mixed use, fewer cars and a better Bayside Trail.

From a more strategic perspective, the City Council and mayor need to improve the current process for development to include public awareness efforts for large projects. Failure to do so could eventually risk their re-election prospects.

— Special to the Press Herald

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