December 17, 2013

Our View: Bayside’s future will be wet without investment

The debate over change in the neighborhood should focus on more than aesthetics.

While the Portland Planning Board is taking some time to think about its support for The Federated Cos.’ “midtown” development in Bayside, the rest of the city has a chance to think about the change that’s taking place in Bayside.

click image to enlarge

A water main break, compounded by heavy rain, causes flooding along Somerset Street in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood last Dec. 19. Protracted debate over the aesthetics of development in Bayside could delay critical infrastructure improvements that will help prevent flooding there.

2012 File Photo/John Patriquin

Not the potential change to the skyline if the developer completes its pair of proposed 16-story residential towers, or the possible change to the character of the former industrial neighborhood if nearly 700 apartments and 100,000 square feet of retail space are added over the next decade.

The change to ponder is the kind that will follow a steady rise in sea level that could put much of the neighborhood under water by the end of the century.

The sea is rising, and the only real question is how fast. Regardless of what gets built in Bayside – if anything – change is inevitable.

That makes the current debate over redeveloping Bayside, and critics’ opposition based largely on aesthetic objections, seem dangerously shortsighted. Fighting over what Bayside should look like could delay much-needed infrastructure improvements in a neighborhood where regular flooding is already a fact of life.

Highly restrictive zoning, proposed by the critics of The Federated Cos.’ plan, could increase per-unit building costs, slowing growth and leaving other city taxpayers to pick up the burden.

Following the recent public hearing, it might appear that there is deep-seated controversy about Bayside’s future, but really there is not.

While there are vocal critics of the style of development proposed for the neighborhood, no one advocates allowing the sea to reclaim what it once covered, before the land under Marginal Way was filled in the mid-19th century with rubble from the Great Fire.

Too much attention has been paid to the height of the tops of the towers that Federated proposes. But the height of the bottom of the buildings is also noteworthy.

Part of the company’s proposal is raising the level of Somerset Street by 2 feet. This is the kind of thing that other developers will be expected to do if they choose to build in the neighborhood. Owners of existing buildings are likely to grow tired of paying for flood damage, and will invest in protecting their properties.

The cost of this transformation, projected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, will not be just the responsibility of property owners. The city will have to invest in infrastructure improvements to keep storm surges and high tides from pushing Back Cove over its current banks.

Making sure there is new development that generates tax revenue to help pay these costs is crucial for the city’s long-term strategy to prepare for sea level rise in the decades to come. Scaring away private investment is the wrong way to move forward.

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