We in Portland have a long history of not building stuff, but 2015 is shaping up to be one for the history books.

It could be the year that we didn’t build a high-rise mixed-use development on Somerset Street in Bayside. The Federated Cos.’ “midtown” project received all the necessary approvals, but got tangled up in litigation with city residents who didn’t like the design. The developer has come up with a plan that pleases the critics, but there may not be enough time to get the new proposal through the planning process on the company’s schedule, putting the project in jeopardy.

Not building midtown would make not building a hotel “event center” on part of Congress Square Plaza in 2014 a paltry non-achievement.

How do we do it?

Other cities grow, while we shrink. Other cities encourage lively urban spaces where people congregate. We treasure our surface parking lots, oversized median strips and empty lots. Still, people keep wanting to come here and build stuff, but we stand our ground.

Here are some of the highlights of nondevelopment in Portland:


• 1807: Capt. Lemuel Moody proposed building an 86-foot observation tower on the top of Munjoy Hill. Outfitted with a high-powered telescope, a spotter could identify ships up to 30 miles out to sea and use flags to signal stevedores and other locals who had business in the port.

But not so fast.

“It’s too tall,” critics cried. “It would block out the sun and create fierce winds. We want every new building to be in human scale.”

“What humans?” Moody responded. “It’s just a grassy hill with some sheep.”

“Sheep scale, then.” And so the observatory plan was put on hold. As a compromise, Moody set up a folding chair and waved his arms whenever he saw a ship.

• 1840: Portland resident John A. Poor became fascinated with the potential of rail transport, and had a vision of his hometown becoming a hub for overland travel and commerce, just as it already was for the movement of ships.


Poor envisioned a locomotive factory and rail links connecting the piers of Portland Harbor to Montreal and western North America, putting Portland in the center of the world. He planned his development for land on the eastern waterfront and would call it The Portland Co.

But not so fast.

“It’s totally out of character with the neighborhood,” critics cried.

“What neighborhood?” Poor said. “It’s just a spit of land under a ledge.”

“We see a neighborhood coming and we don’t want you to build anything that is out of character with it. We want frontage, we want setbacks, we want parking.”

“Parking?” Poor said. “What’s that?”


“We’ll tell you in about 100 years.”

Fortunately, Poor was able to reach a compromise. He preserved the shoreline as a gull sanctuary, and once a year he drove a wagon down to Boston, where he could catch a train to Montreal.

• 1866: After a Fourth of July display set off a fire that swept through Portland’s wooden houses, a new mixed-use brick development was proposed for the Exchange Street area. Banks, counting houses, law offices, workshops and stores were designed to service the busy harbor.

Not so fast.

“We cherish our open space,” the community said. “This is a jewel in the diamond necklace that rings our city.”

“But it’s a smoking wreck,” the developers said.


“You lack vision,” the community countered. “We want a place for people to gather. We see programs, we see food trucks.”

And so the plans for the Old Port were put off forever. The pile of ash remained. The food trucks came for a while, but since there were no people, it hardly seemed worth the trouble.

There were other significant nondevelopments in Portland’s history. We didn’t build City Hall in 1909 (too tall), the Porteous Building on Congress Street in 1904 (where do the cars go?) and the waste treatment plant on the Eastern Prom (in a park? Are you kidding?).

Cities naturally want to change and grow, but that can be stopped by a well-organized, self-satisfied community that fights to keep everything just as it is. It doesn’t take a lot of people. You just need some with a secure place to live and who either have jobs or don’t need to work. As long as they don’t mind paying higher taxes every year for declining services, they are primed for the fight.

It’s not easy. In a place like Portland, economic nondevelopment doesn’t just happen by itself. You really have to work at it.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: gregkesich

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