Portland vs. Her People

By JEFF INGLIS  |  March 19, 2014

In fact, MilNeil questions Monro’s claims of pure motives. “I don’t think they’re out to win the lawsuit, actually,” MilNeil says, citing a Press Herald opinion column from November 2013, in which Monro was quoted saying it didn’t matter if he won the case in the end.

“We think the delay may be a deal breaker (for the developer),” the paper quoted Monro saying. “The power to delay is the power to destroy.”

Monro vigorously denies the charge, saying “we’re in it to change that project,” and rattling off several very specific changes he would like to see in the Midtown project (a lower parking garage allowing a wider, lower residential tower, for example). “This is not about delay.”

Ensuring the city followed the proper legal process is indeed important; Monro observes that the recent court rulings suggest that’s not a strength at City Hall. Noting that the courts must weigh heavily the fact that the city has the right to govern itself, Monro sees Portland’s recent losses as evidence something is very wrong: “Even with a bias in their favor they can’t win.”

What some — including Monro and Brennan — see as part of the checks-and-balances system, others, such as MilNeil, see as elitist. “As a city we should not be resolving all these contentious debates by lawsuit,” he says. “It’s not democratic.”

The only people who get to sue if they see an outcome they don’t like are rich people who can afford to hire lawyers, he says. “A courtroom is not a public process. It’s rich people fighting against each other.”

In the balance hang more than a few important questions.

For MilNeil, the key is renters’ futures. If Midtown’s developers have to modify their project to make it smaller or shorter, those changes will cost money, MilNeil says, on top of the relatively fixed
remediation costs for cleaning up the former railyard. With fewer tenants available to cover those costs, rents go higher — which is the opposite of MilNeil’s goal.

For Brennan, the suits boil down to the city’s sovereignty. Particularly with regard to the Congress Square petition and upcoming vote, he asks, “Is everything that the City Council does subject to a petition drive or a referendum?”

For Turek, it’s about taking on problems head-on. “All over the country cities are realizing that if we invest directly in public parks, we’ll get a lot more economic benefit” than selling the space and hoping development spreads, he says.

And for Monro, the effort is about holding back City Hall’s eagerness to grow. “They want population and tax base,” he says. “They’re looking for as many Empire State Buildings as they can get.”

Diagnosis #6: Being overwhelmed
It is possible that at least some of the popular resistance is because many areas of Portland are changing rapidly at the same time.

Brennan calls this period in Portland’s history one of “unprecedented development and development opportunities in the city,” saying there is “a lot of pent-up demand due to the recession” that started in 2008 and kept bankers and builders laying low, waiting for better times. Now, he observes, projects are being proposed throughout the city, including on High Street and India Street, as well as the working waterfront.

“There seems to be development every place we turn,” he says.

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