Portland vs. Her People

By JEFF INGLIS  |  March 19, 2014

Regarding Williston-West specifically, he says city officials were so worried about the future of the building if it lay dormant for too long that they eagerly embraced “the first guy who comes in,” even though that meant offices and a performance space in the middle of residences, and despite a lack of parking. (He says any parallels between fears for Williston-West and the St. Lawrence Church on Munjoy Hill, which did lay vacant and ultimately deteriorated until it needed to be demolished, are weak at best, because of different neighborhood environments.)

With Congress Square, he says, the city was afraid it would never have the money or the civic interest to improve it, so when a developer proposed the idea that involved selling off public land in the heart of the Arts District, officials leapt at the chance.

And with Midtown, the official thought line was, “We’re afraid if we don’t approve this, we’ll never get an opportunity like this ever again,” Remmel says. So the city raised the allowable building height in that area, and made other changes to accommodate the plan, rather than, for example, turning it down and waiting for one that made more sense for Portland.

Housing advocate and urban-issues blogger Christian MilNeil says the Congress Square situation and the Williston-West proposal are similar: “Those were really developer-driven. The developer came in with a proposal and that became the plan.”

(Former councilor John Anton, who was the only person to vote against both the Williston-West and Congress Square decisions, declined to comment for this story, saying he left public office “to get my life back” and didn’t want to get involved in current issues, nor revisit old ones.)

But MilNeil says the Midtown project was different, the result of a 15-year planning process. “You can’t really blame the developers for following the city’s plan,” he says. “The developers really were proposing something that was faithful to the city’s vision,” a development with an active street level, retail shops, and lots of housing.

Diagnosis #3: Resistance to change
Brennan says those are the city’s goals — his particular focus is “initiatives and proposals that are going to bring people to the downtown, galvanize the downtown, revitalize the downtown” — and says officials are balancing “a number of competing objectives,” including the city’s historic feel and overall aesthetics. 

Citizens who have risen up to oppose some of these developments have “different objectives,” he says.

When asked why some projects got a green light with barely a whisper, and others ignited firestorms, Brennan as much as throws up his hands.

“You get to a point where you’ve tried to compromise,” he says. “You just get to a point where you fundamentally have disagreements.”

Remmel agrees with that assessment: “Planning means to me you have a long-term idea” rather than being “focused on project approvals,” he says, arguing that city officials “are basically project-oriented. I don’t think they think in the same way the neighborhoods do.”

“A lot of these arguments are really about disruptive effects in a neighborhood,” Remmel notes. He admits, though, that what might count as disruption for him is fine for others, and vice-versa. He is confident, for example, that the Williston-West building could easily be converted into high-end residences by a developer who would protect the building’s historic facade. But Portland Landmarks, which protects the city’s architectural heritage, is against splitting up the beautiful interior of the sanctuary.

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