Portland officials are scheduling an additional meeting this month to review the city’s proposal to build a new homeless services center in Riverton – stoking concerns that they are fast-tracking project approvals before a citizen initiative can derail it.

Like City Council committees, the Planning Board tries to scale back meetings during the summer. However, the board, at the urging of staff, has scheduled a second meeting in August to take up the proposal and two others.

The staff suggestion about an additional meeting came the day after the board’s first workshop on the city’s proposal on July 27, at which the board requested additional information and another workshop before proceeding to a vote.

Public notice was issued Wednesday afternoon for the Aug. 24 workshop. In addition to the homeless services center, the agenda includes a workshop on a hotel proposal and a public hearing on the redevelopment of the Northern Light Mercy Hospital campus on State Street.

Sally Bowden-Schaible, a member of the Smaller Shelters for Portland Coalition steering committee and one of the 10 signatories on the citizen initiative, said the move shows that the city is fast-tracking approvals to beat the referendum.

“I am incredibly disheartened that my own City government continues to push this project forward on a fast track when the people of Portland have already qualified the smaller shelters ballot question for the November ballot,” she said in a statement. “I just want City staff and especially our elected officials to respect our right to decide the direction of shelter policy. And yet, we are now learning that city staff are scheduling a special Planning Board meeting to move this project forward faster than it otherwise could proceed.”


However, city staff and Planning Board Chairman Brandon Mazer said there are several projects in the pipeline, including the city’s, to justify an additional meeting in August. Mazer said he has not felt any pressure from staff to rush the project along any more quickly than board members are comfortable with.

“We have a backlog. It’s not just for this project that we have added our second meeting back onto the calendar,” Mazer said. “The board’s role is not to speed up or slow down any project. We are taking it as it’s ready to be taken.”

City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said the planning process is designed to streamline housing proposals, provided that applications are complete and project applicants are responsive to staff and board requests. Such has been the case with the Developers Collaborative, developer of the homeless services center, she said.

“Where an applicant has submitted everything we require, holding a hearing as soon as possible is entirely appropriate,” Grondin said. “There’s no reason to delay when we receive a complete application – a streamlined process is exactly the goal.”

She added, “The Planning Board is an independent body, and as such they will determine if a project is complete enough to be voted on or whether it needs further review.”

Kevin Bunker of the Developers Collaborative said the project is proceeding along the timeline outlined in his application to the city. The goal, he said, is to have the new shelter built by the winter of 2022.


“To do that, we had to have an aggressive timeline,” he said. “It was never about the referendum.”

The city has been working on building a new 200-bed homeless services center on Riverside Street for the last two years. It would replace the city’s Oxford Street Shelter, which officials say is outdated and unsafe for both clients and staff.

The proposed new shelter would have an onsite soup kitchen, medical clinic and rooms where community service providers can meet privately with clients – amenities the current shelter lacks. It would also have raised beds that are spaced out, rather than floor mats tightly packed together like at Oxford Street.

After years of planning, the city was a week away from formally receiving development proposals to build the homeless service center at a city-owned parcel at 654 Riverside St. when a group of residents announced a citizen initiative meant to derail the project. That initiative would limit the size of new emergency shelters to 50 beds, among other things.

Activists placed a retroactive date of April 20 on the initiative. However, city attorneys have said that the city’s shelter proposal could still move forward under state land use laws if it receives approval in time – even if the referendum passes.

City attorneys originally said the shelter would need to receive approvals by mid-October for the project to move forward regardless of the referendum outcome. At the time, city attorney Michael Goldman and Greg Mitchell, the city’s economic development director, said getting those approvals by mid-October would be “a very tight” and “fairly aggressive” schedule, respectively.


Since then, however, city attorneys have modified their position, saying the shelter would need to be approved a month sooner than originally thought to ensure the project could not be blocked by the referendum.

City Attorney Danielle West said the approval would need to come 45 days before the November election. That would require approvals by mid-September.

“It’s yet to be seen whether it will be on the September agenda (for a vote),” Mazer said. “It depends on how this workshop goes.”

The Planning Board conducted its first workshop on the proposal on July 27. Both the Developers Collaborative and the city are co-applicants.

In written testimony to the board, Kimberly Cook, a former city councilor and member of the shelters coalition, compared the city’s approval timeline with other recent projects, including Preble Street’s application to convert its day shelter into a 40-bed overnight shelter. She said it took Preble Street 2½ 1months to receive an approval after its first workshop.

However, city officials say every project is different and insist the city’s proposal is proceeding on its due course. They say the city was not to blame for Preble Street’s delay.


“The delay between the first and second workshop was only because they didn’t get us their materials until November 24,” said Grondin said, noting that a second workshop was scheduled on Dec. 8. “Conversely, Kevin Bunker (of Developers Collaborative) and his team have provided complete application materials and have been very responsive when asked for additional info.”

Grondin said Preble Street applied for a permit in February, but the city has been trying to address outstanding issues. She said the city is still awaiting a response to its June 15 comments to the nonprofit. “Additionally, it should be noted that none of their planning board conditions for approval held them up from seeking a building permit,” she said.

Mazer, the Planning Board chairman, said his colleagues wanted to hold at least one more workshop on the city’s shelter proposal, primarily so they could receive more details about how the city would manage the shelter and address any concerns from neighbors. That management plan is required under new zoning rules. And Mazer said the board requested that the city plan undergo a peer review.

Kristen Dow, director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department, said staff members have updated their management plan based on the board’s feedback and it is currently being reviewed by MaineHousing, which allocates funding for emergency shelters and oversees homeless issues statewide.

“We are excited to continue to move the process forward to build a new homeless services center that is so very needed in our community,” Dow said.

When staff polled the board about members’ availability for an additional August meeting, at least one member voiced concerns, according to emails obtained by the Press Herald.


“I am very concerned if the intent of this additional meeting is to accommodate a vote on 638 Riverside early enough to avoid the possible impact of the referendum vote in November,” board member Bob Dunfey replied.

Dunfey said in an interview that he has not felt pressured by staff to rush project approvals. He wants the board to consider the project on its own merits and not be “complicit” in an end-run around the citizen initiative.

Dunfey said that based on his 2½ years on the board, it would “seem fast” if the proposal were to proceed to a public hearing and vote next month.

Christine Grimando, the city’s planning and urban development director, said in an email to the board that the additional meeting was needed because of a backlog of projects, plus the board’s desire for another workshop on the shelter proposal. She said the city tries to reduce the frequency of meetings over the summer and over the winter holidays, but it’s not always possible.

“Much like December, we always aspire to this in August and only sometimes manage it,” Grimando said. “But as has been the case for quite a while now, there are many applications in the pipeline, and with the Board’s request for another workshop on the homeless services center application, we’re looking at two meetings this month to try to accommodate everything in the queue in as timely a way as possible.”

She added, “There are enough applications to fill another August meeting even without the second workshop, and this also has been part of our discussions about the Planning Board’s meeting schedule, as it would generally be helpful for our fall agendas to get through more items this summer.”

Cook wasn’t buying that explanation, however, saying the board had decided only last month to hold one meeting in August.

“I guess this begs the question of what changed between mid-July and early August that convinced city staff and the Planning Board that they all of a sudden have a backlog of projects,” Cook said in an email Wednesday. “This smells as bad as it looks.”

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