PORTLAND — A progressive housing proposal by The Federated Cos., known as “midtown,” will meet the city’s vision for Bayside but may not meet the private desires of those who have made it their mission to destroy it.

One of the founders of a group that calls itself “Keep Portland Livable” has been quoted as saying that “the power to delay can be the power to destroy,” after he noted the group’s intention to do everything in its power to oppose midtown.

Ironically, Keep Portland Livable may do anything but; as history has shown, its approach is not a productive one. Destructive rather than constructive criticism of this sort does not result in the utopian alternatives often advanced in the abstract as reasons therefore; rather, it virtually always results in a perpetuation of the status quo.

Instead of the fantastic pictures publicized by Keep Portland Livable as a more desirable architectural outcome for the land in question, what we will see if this group is successful is exactly what we see now. That sight – blight – is part of the reason the public has expended immense time and energy over the last 15 years trying to change Bayside for the better. But don’t take my word for it that this will be the outcome of successful opposition – history proves the point.

In the 1980s, critics complained that a proposed office tower of 22 stories was too tall for Portland, and the project was scaled back prior to being scrapped. Its intended anchor tenant located by the Maine Mall instead, fueling suburbanization in an area cited by the Brookings Institution as one of the worst cases of sprawl in America.

For those keeping score, sprawling suburbia is not “livable,” to use the rhetoric and propaganda employed above. This is, of course, not to suggest one cannot actually live in suburbia. To be sure, many of us – most, in fact – do. It’s simply to point out how ironic the jargon-infused battle cry of Keep Portland Livable is in relation to its opposition to housing in Bayside.


The site of this opposed high-rise remained a parking lot for more than 15 years before another tower proposal emerged. That tower, too, was met with opposition, but critics complained more specifically about the dangers of wind tunnels.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because Keep Portland Livable has raised similar concerns regarding midtown. Apparently absent from any analysis of the effect of wind generated by tall buildings, however, is consideration of how a place like Monument Square can be so functional despite a half-dozen high-rises nearby or, more perplexing still, how millions of people get by in a city like New York.

Not surprisingly, this project, too, never materialized; however, it was scuttled by forces much larger than local opposition. As this illustrates, even without critics urban development is already hard enough.

“Not in my backyard” attitudes ensure that complicated obstacles become insurmountable. Today, a quarter-century after the block was first cleared for redevelopment, the site is still a largely vacant parking lot and, ironically, has some pretty fierce winds. Again, for those keeping track, surface parking lots are not “livable.”

Similar stories exist for other sites, including the high-profile parcel at the corner of Cumberland and Forest avenues where a few years ago the power to delay really was the power to destroy.

Today, an Avesta Housing project is under way on that site, but only after 12 stories of market-rate housing were nixed by opposition, causing financing to dry up and nearly a decade of weeds, which themselves may have violated applicable height limits.

The point is, while it’s always possible to point out where a development proposal can be improved, to do so in a destructive rather than constructive manner or at the wrong point in the process simply ensures further suburbanization, a perpetuation of empty lots and gentrification by keeping a lid on new market-rate housing supply.

It will be a shame if Keep Portland Livable successfully masquerades as a proponent of livability to destroy midtown and in so doing misleads those less inclined to consider the practical implications this will have for Greater Portland into thinking it is a positive outcome. Those who agree should visit https://www.facebook.com/ portlandersforsustainability.

— Special to the Press Herald

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