OPINION: A Case In Favor and a Case Against a Moratorium on Developments Adjacent to Public Spaces

At Issue ~ In October of this year, Portland District 1 City Councilor Belinda Ray proposed an ordinance to the Portland City Council in response to a not-yet-filed development project at 155 Sheridan Street in Portland. The proposal was in response to the concerns of many throughout the community, in particular the Munjoy Hill neighborhood, that the project's planned height would block a large portion of the view from North Street's Fort Sumner Park. The view is considered a favorite spot for viewing sunsets and the sweeping view of downtown Portland looking westward. The park itself is also considered by many to be historically significant. Councilor Ray's proposed ordinance, scheduled for a vote before the Council this Monday, would enact a 90-day moratorium on development projects directly abutting public open space. Ray says this period would provide time for the city to review its current ordinances and take measures to protect such spaces.

Those opposed to the moratorium claim it is a band-aid for a larger problem and that it discourages the development of much-needed housing in an already tight housing market. The principal developer of the project also says the moratorium is both unneeded and would delay the project's start until the spring or summer of 2017, which would come at significant cost to the project's investment team. In recent days, the developer's team has suggested the project will be scaled back to avoid any interference with the park's view.

Below are two opinions: one from Nini McManamy, a principal of the newly formed Friends of Ft. Sumner Park, who argues in favor of the proposed moratorium; the other from Patrick Venne, a consultant to the Sheridan Street developer, Bernard Saulnier, who opposes the measure. Neither opinion necessarily represents the views of the Munjoy Hill Observer or the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization.

 

A Case Against The Proposed Moratorium ON DEVELOPMENTS Adjacent to Public Spaces

Friends, Neighbors, and Visitors:

I’d like to take a moment to speak to you openly about an important vote being taken by the Portland City Council tomorrow night (Monday, November 21st). The vote concerns a proposed development moratorium, which is basically another word for a ‘pause button’ related to the review of all real estate development projects in the Munjoy Hill area that abut public parks.  In this market, that means new housing. Practically speaking, the moratorium targets one site in particular, 155 Sheridan Street (which City staff confirmed in a memo to the Council would be the only property impacted). Its impact will include a prohibition on any filing, review, or approval of any project proposed for the site, regardless of its size, use, or nature. The genesis of the proposed moratorium is a conceptual project rendering which many of you may recall from last summer: a 6-story building that would have obstructed a portion of the view from the treasured Fort Sumner Park. Please allow me to expand upon that concept, and where things presently stand, to familiarize you with the context in which Monday’s vote will take place.

Like any business, a real estate development venture looks to remain profitable while respecting those with whom it interacts; and as a local consultant working with the parties behind the 155 Sheridan Street plans, I can tell you they’re no different. While they had every right to quietly file an application for a project that would have legally obstructed the view, without seeking neighborhood input first, they recognized the sensitive nature of this important site and did the neighborly thing to do by reaching out to the neighborhood first.  It was clear from day one that certain project changes were desired, and the development team redesigned the project—and continued to discuss it with the community, Mayor, councilors, and staff—not once but twice. The most recent iteration maintained a 6-story configuration, but one which would have obstructed a mere 1.25% of the overall view, a negligible impact sandwiched between two tree tops at the fringe of the panorama. 

By this time, the aforementioned moratorium was actively under consideration by the Council; it had a first reading in October and was initially contemplated as an emergency measure, which would have taken effect immediately.  The intent of prohibiting any action related to reviewing the development plan is to review regulations intended to preserve the park’s essential character. As you might imagine, the uncertainty created by this proposal caused the development team to freeze all design work and remain ‘pencils down’ pending an understanding of what the new regulations might look like. As it turns out, the moratorium was not acted on in October, and its scheduled date for action in early November was cancelled due to the staffing needs of the Presidential Election. While such cancellations are common in local government, the fact remains that we are now approaching the length of time originally contemplated for the moratorium (60 days), and it hasn’t even started. Again, in a practical sense the difference between an official moratorium and the mere announcement of a potential moratorium is nil. 

While we anxiously waited to see what direction the Council might move in—lobbying for avoidance of the moratorium on the basis that it is unnecessary given the existing powers of the planning board, and the Council’s right to change zoning even without a moratorium—we also began to reassess the project in terms of timing.  On the basis of our understanding that protection of the view was of paramount importance, willingness was expressed to completely forgo the top two floors and build a much shorter 4-story structure, with dramatically fewer units, in an effort to avoid the moratorium and simply proceed with the normal review process.  And that process, by the way, would continue to provide ample opportunity for public input, objections, criticism and support for the shorter building.  Our willingness to scale back the building was shared with the Mayor and Council on the assumption that it would be viewed as a fair and reasonable concession that achieves the primary objective of the community (view protection) and thus makes the moratorium unnecessary. While the Council has listened to our perspective, and we feel will fairly deliberate on Monday evening, the vote is still scheduled for action nevertheless. That’s why it’s important, in our opinion, for constituents to fully understand the ramifications of the pending vote.

It’s critical to underscore the fact that the vote is not one for, or against, the Park.  And it’s not a vote for or against the 155 Sheridan Street project either. Rather, it relates to a procedural question about what the best way is to protect the Park (not whether it’s protected). Is it the complete prohibition of any development action, when the development team has already expressed a willingness to considerably reduce the scale of the proposed building and protect 100% of the view? We think not. A better approach would be to let the planning board utilize the variety of standards in its toolbox to craft a project, which, in full compliance with guidelines set by the State Legislature and City Council, reasonably addresses negative externalities. Given the developer’s willingness to reduce height and protect 100% of the view, which has been publicly expressed on a number of occasions, we anticipate the remainder of the project to generate comparatively few concerns. And, neither the community nor the Council has to take anybody’s word that the project will be scaled down, because there’s no risk to waiting until an application is filed to see if that’s in fact the case. If it isn’t, the City hasn’t forfeited any right that it now possesses to enact a moratorium. Moreover, and importantly, a moratorium also does not convey upon the City any authority or powers not already possessed. In a very literal sense, it accomplishes nothing. 

On the flip side, it has a measurable (negative) impact, not only on the development team but on the Portland housing market as well. 

As a local Portlander who spent a good portion of my childhood on Munjoy Hill, not far from the Park, not only can I sympathize with those who love Fort Sumner Park, I can also empathize. That said, this development team has been extraordinarily upfront about its intentions, and atypically responsive to community feedback. The desire is to build a quality project that meets the demand of the local market in a manner that is acceptable to those concerned. I think we’re at a point where that outcome is now one vote away from reality, where new housing can be added without impacting any of the view. But if the moratorium passes we’ll fall deeper in the surging line of competing projects, later into the short construction season, and farther from ever building anything—and again without any benefit to the City. The outcome of a cost benefit analysis of the moratorium would, in other words, reflect 100% cost, and 0% benefit (from all perspectives).

The last thing Portland needs is another polarizing public development debate, and the development team wants to avoid just that. From the start, we’ve attempted to maximize our rights but only to the extent we can without offending a majority of stakeholders. This has been a truly inclusive, and iterative, process, and from our perspective it will be confusing (and set a bad precedent) if we are penalized for being open and responsive. We would ask you to please consider this perspective, and realize that you can be both pro-Park and anti-moratorium. In the end, we appreciate and respect your position on the matter, and would be happy to further discuss ours in advance of Monday if you have any questions. Thank you for your time and consideration of this topic.

Enjoy the rest of your Sunday!

Patrick Venne
PatrickJVenne@gmail.com
207.274.1298

 

A CASE IN Favor of THE PROPOSED MORATORIUM ON DEVELOPMENTS ADJACENT TO PUBLIC SPACES

As I sit in Fort Sumner Park writing this, I am sharing the view with visitors from Boston, sent here by their hotel, visitors from New Hampshire, new residents from northern Maine, and neighbors. The Park has been getting lots of attention lately due to development pressures near the park's viewing platform-- construction that would threaten the tranquility of the park as well as its sunset views and view of Mt Washington. Many of today's visitors are here to check out the view, some just as part of a daily dog walk, some with kids in strollers, and some to play football.

The Friends of Fort Sumner was born as a result of neighbors coming together to protect the park, but quickly expanded its focus to include renewal of the park, promotion of its amazing history, and sponsorship of events in the park. First on our plate however, is protection of the view.

On Monday night, November 21, the Portland City Council will hold a public hearing on a very brief moratorium on development next to our neighborhood's parks-- it only affects Zone 6 in District 1. The moratorium would commit the city to review and revise its laws to better protect ALL of Portland's parks, cemeteries, and athletic fields from development pressures. The Friends feel fortunate to have support from the MHNO on protecting the view [though no explicit stance has been taken by the MHNO on the proposed moratorium], as well as from our city councilor Belinda Ray, who has sponsored the moratorium and officials in city government. We look forward to the next step-- revisions of our park protections.

The McCartney family, who own the land slated for development, have lived on the Hill for a very long time, and we wish them well in developing much needed housing on Sheridan Street. We don't know who the eventual developer will be, or what they will build. But we believe that the moratorium before the council offers the best guarantee that the work of protecting Fort Sumner Park's view will go forward, and we support it 100%.

Please join us at the public hearing, Monday night at 5 pm, in Council Chambers. And follow us on Facebook at Save Fort Sumner Park.

Nini McManamy
Friends of Fort Sumner Park