When I was a community planning and development student at the Muskie School of Public Service, among the more instructive assignments was for the class “Elements of Town Design,” taught by Theo Holtwijk. He asked students to select a neighborhood we loved and assess its compliance with zoning.

Then living in the West End, I chose to assess Andrews Square, at Pine and West streets, in the R6 Urban Residential Zone – the same zoning that regulates most neighborhoods in both the West End and East End of Portland.

What I had found was no surprise to Holtwijk, but for me it served as nothing short of a revelation. Andrews Square, like nearly all of the great neighborhoods chosen by the students, was illegal. The buildings had too many units with too few parking spaces on lots that were far too small. Surprisingly, few of the buildings were too tall. Indeed, most were far short of the current limits.

Somehow, the zoning for our most beloved neighborhoods had evolved into a prescription for a future with taller buildings on larger lots with fewer, bigger units and more parking spaces, the construction costs and purchase prices of which ensured that little would be built – until now.

During the eight years that I have represented the East End on the Portland City Council, I have seen a sharp rise in housing costs and the arrival of a population willing to pay nearly any price to live in taller buildings on larger lots with fewer, bigger units with more parking spaces – a demand that developers are glad to fulfill, not least because it is what the zoning prescribes.

Meanwhile, those who would build middle-class homes reflective of the ones many of us live in must petition for variances known as contract zones, a risk that few will take.

What this zoning has yielded is not only exclusive but also alien to neighborhood context, as it has prevented many homeowners from making basic updates to nonconforming buildings. Indeed, all three members of the City Council residing in the R6 Urban Residential Zone live in buildings that would be illegal to construct today.

The three-unit building where my family lives is on a lot that is both too small and too narrow, as well as having too many units for its size. Complete with an illegal driveway that offers tandem parking, my building is also typical of Munjoy Hill.

It is difficult to understand what city planners had once found so objectionable about our homes. If we all love our neighborhoods, both their design and diversity, we really ought to legalize them.

On Tuesday, at its next meeting, the Portland Planning Board will continue to review the R6 Urban Residential Zone, as requested by me and the other members of the City Council’s Housing and Community Development Committee.

The board will also consider amendments that contain descriptions of the traditional urban development patterns actually found in our neighborhoods.

This means, among other things, lowering minimums for lot sizes and frontage requirements to reflect what’s found on the ground.

It also means relaxing density limits to allow the most typical of traditional urban housing types: triple-deckers with driveways for three cars, rather than with surface parking lots for as many cars as would now be mandated by the zoning.

As I listened to public comment in October, at the last Planning Board meeting on this topic, I heard many of my neighbors express both an affinity for where they live as well as some alarm at recent trends in neighborhood development. On these matters, we are in complete agreement.

I also heard helpful criticism aimed at decoding and revealing our neighborhoods’ essential DNA, including the intricate patterns between building height and side setbacks needed for driveways.

Nevertheless, misunderstanding persists about whether legalizing the neighborhoods we all love threatens our neighborhoods with perdition. Instead, I believe it may well promise their salvation.

— Special to the Press Herald