Despite being in office for less than two months, Mayor Ethan Strimling said in his first State of the City address Monday that Portland is strong despite facing challenges that include homelessness, substance abuse, a lack of housing, aging elementary schools and stagnant wages.

While Strimling touched on familiar themes from his first weeks as mayor, such as housing and upgrading the city’s elementary schools, he broke some new ground by suggesting the city create an “office for new Americans” to focus on job opportunities and business development for immigrants. He gave no details during the address.

He also called for the city to reopen the discussion about redevelopment of the Portland Ocean Terminal, at the Maine State Pier, a topic that has been contentious in the past. He also wants to build five new “housing-first” complexes for the chronically homeless.

Acknowledging his “ambitious” agenda, Strimling, who was inaugurated Dec. 7, said he is buoyed by the commitment of city councilors, who have set a goal of addressing these issues and others while limiting any annual property tax increases to 2.5 percent.

“I know this body understands those realities and it will do everything it can in the next year to begin tacking our ship into the wind so that we can address our needs head on,” said Strimling, who leads council meetings and has a vote as one of its nine members. “We have a lot of work to do to ensure our city maximizes its potential and serves all of our residents with equal opportunity.”

Strimling delivered his first State of the City address – lasting about 10 minutes – to about two dozen people. It touched on several goals that are by now well-known.

He has formed a Housing Committee with a majority of the councilors to tackle the problem of scarce housing and rising rents. The committee, which held its first meeting last week, will consider zoning changes to encourage all types of housing and selling city-owned land for development, among other things.

Strimling would like to have universal high-speed broadband access to promote economic development.

He also noted the need to upgrade the city’s elementary schools. He said councilors unanimously deemed that a priority, along with adequately funding “usual city services.”

While Hall Elementary School is in line to be rebuilt using state funds, parents throughout the city are lobbying the council to put another bond before voters to upgrade the four remaining elementary schools that haven’t been upgraded since they were built decades ago.

“As a city, we have left these schools to deteriorate for far too long, and none of us wants another generation of kids to go through the schools with an inadequate learning environment,” he said.

Strimling called on the city to build five housing-first complexes, which combine support services with permanent housing as a way to reduce the number of chronically homeless people. He also said the city’s Health and Human Services Committee has been assigned to address the “alarming substance abuse problem.”

Communities throughout Maine and across the nation are struggling with a heroin epidemic. Portland, along with other communities, is looking for ways to get people treatment instead of putting them in jail.

Strimling said the city also is looking into reopening the discussion about the Maine State Pier, which he called “a desperately underutilized cornerstone of the waterfront.”

The city last discussed redeveloping the pier in 2007. Two real estate developers, Ocean Properties and The Olympia Cos., submitted dueling proposals for luxury hotels, but the council was deeply divided and neither proposal went forward. Since then, two seafood processors have been leasing the pier.

Strimling said the city’s environmental goals include modernizing trash and recycling operations, exploring solar electricity, beefing up the city’s electric vehicle fleet and planting more trees.

“I realize that all of this work is ambitious,” Strimling said. “I realize that all (of) these ideas will not be happening overnight.”

Also Monday, the council considered a proposal to rezone several parcels of land on Forest Avenue to prevent any type of suburban store with a large parking lot from being built.

That proposal includes 1.3 acres where a CVS pharmacy is planned. The development would be contingent on removing five buildings, including the Forest Gardens bar and the Palmer Spring Co. building. The proposed demolition will be reviewed Wednesday by the city’s Historic Preservation Board.

Councilors wrangled for 45 minutes with the wording of their motion, to ensure that the Planning Board would review the zoning change before any site plans are reviewed for that parcel, or any others along Forest Avenue.

The rezoning would require any new buildings to be built close to Forest Avenue and prohibit drive-through windows.

The board was told to report back to the council before April 1.

 


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