I was intrigued by a New York Times article last January that lamented the homogenization of city apartment housing and its lack of individuality (“Which City Are You in? As Housing Starts to Look the Same, It’s Hard to Tell”).

While the author limited her study to just three major cities in the U.S., she could have easily also been talking about Portland, Maine.

The Times’ reporting raised several legitimate points of concern, but I was left wanting to know more. It’s easy to level criticism and far more difficult to offer practical solutions. In a sentence, my concern is that Portland is fast losing its historic, charming character, as the boxy “Lego block” buildings rise up, one after another, throughout the Old Port area and elsewhere.

While an alternative to our city’s development strategy is not obvious, its tragic result is.

People from away visit and love the authentic, historic waterfront, the human scale, the friendly streetscapes with their fast-disappearing views of the harbor. So they uproot and move here. But to accommodate the growing population of mostly newcomers (and to increase the city’s tax base), the politicians, planning boards and cost-conscious taxpayers allow, if not encourage, developers to build large buildings (housing, commercial and office), which, when jammed together as they are on the peninsula, seem to ignore the character and scale of our city.

These Lego blocks are often lower in quality, tight on space, blockers of sky and vista and usually cheaper, thus appealing to budget-minded taxpayers who want, per the Times article, “to get their money’s worth and not throw money away on aesthetics, unnecessary amenities, or architectural conceits.” In addition, as the article points out, now more than ever, it seems, architects are pressured by budgetary constraints and density requests from developers, while answering to political expediency. So, as the big, generic boxes go up, the traditional “feel” and authentic character that initially drew people to Maine becomes bastardized, homogenized and irretrievably lost.


What should we do? Frankly, I don’t know.

Some people brag that “good architecture” (meaning aesthetically, functionally, and environmentally responsible architecture), is no more expensive than “inferior architecture.” That’s sometimes true, but usually only if everyone making decisions cooperates with each other and has similar aesthetics, lifestyles and values. Good luck with that!

Portland doesn’t yet look like your typical “cookie-cutter” city, but many of our new buildings, like those featured in the Times article, could be almost anywhere in the U.S. Just look at the examples in the article. So, we ask, how do you get people to agree on the value of historic, preservationist architecture? We may not agree on what constitutes “good architecture,” or what we feel is worth preserving or emulating as we build new buildings. But can we agree that the architectural character and vision of Portland is fast disappearing and morphing into something it never was before?

To my kids: Please come back and visit us soon, before you no longer can recognize Portland.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.