Maine’s historic downtown areas are a key component of the Maine “brand” – the authenticity, vitality and sense of place that attract people to our state. Portland has a great example of this in Congress Street, where distinctive architecture, wide sidewalks, and a vibrant community of small businesses literally form the backbone of the city.
In recent years, Congress Street has attracted remarkable levels of investment. Historic office buildings that have been converted to studios provide workspace for hundreds of small enterprises. Other structures now feature ground-floor retail businesses with residences stacked above. Twenty years ago, the neighborhood was abandoned every afternoon at five; today, there’s nearly round-the-clock activity.
Still, this success hasn’t been easy to come by, nor is it guaranteed to continue. There’s a growing consensus in the city that Portland’s regulations and archaic zoning laws make it too difficult for new development and new businesses to take root downtown; because regulations are so complex and expensive, developers, builders and employers all too frequently move their projects out to the suburbs.
At the same time, it’s worth taking steps to preserve and enhance the extraordinary value of Congress Street’s built environment, by holding new buildings and renovation projects to high standards of quality and design, and protecting the street’s architectural treasures.
Towards this end, the city and some civic organizations have proposed a new historic district along Congress Street. The district is meant to preserve the street’s extraordinary “quality of place,” and it would also give building owners easier access to the state’s new historic preservation tax credit. But critics point out that historic district rules would add yet another layer of regulation to Portland’s complicated zoning and development laws.
The debate is getting contentious, but it’s worth remembering that both sides share a common goal: a more vibrant neighborhood that supports more businesses, maintains its buildings in better condition and attracts more investment for redevelopment. It shouldn’t be difficult for all parties involved to find common ground.
Portland could satisfy everyone by approving the historic district regulations while simultaneously getting rid of older, less sensible regulations that are discouraging development and investment. The net result should be a historic district where redevelopment and new buildings are simultaneously easier to approve, less expensive to build, and have a higher quality of design.
A good place to begin would be to waive the city’s extraordinarily expensive parking requirements, which currently require developers to build almost as much space for storing cars as they build for housing or offices. Each downtown parking space can cost up to $50,000 to build, and parking lots and garages also detract from Congress Street’s architectural interest and walkability. Instead of taking a bureaucratic command-and-control approach to parking, the city should let developers and landlords operating in the free market make these decisions.
The city’s Planning Department could also commit more resources to historic district projects in order to give them expedited and timely review. Currently, the approval process for building projects in downtown Portland can take months. Any project that meets the exacting design requirements of the historic district would be an asset to Portland’s built environment; city planners should therefore do all they can to help those projects get approved and under construction quickly.
If the city can streamline regulations and make in-town development more affordable, then developers and businesses will gladly invest in and maintain Congress Street’s historic buildings.
By pairing the Congress Street historic district with strategic and significant streamlining of development regulations, Portland’s main street can attract more investment and higher-quality urban design, and Portlanders can find common ground in the historic district debate.
Maggie Drummond is a Portland resident and advocacy director of nonprofit GrowSmart Maine.