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The case for redesigning Portland’s neighborhoods

PORTLAND, Maine — High-end development has boomed and rents have spiked in recent years, making it more difficult for middle- and low-income Portlanders to afford to live here. Meanwhile, as the cost of living climbs, many of the skilled workers who have made Portland the hub of Maine’s economy will retire in the next decade.

The solution to this “vicious cycle” is to develop more densely populated neighborhoods to attract residents and tie higher education around Portland more tightly to the local economy to produce skilled workers, according to a new report, “Growing Portland: Not Whether but How.”

But unless the city makes a deliberate effort to grow the population density in specific neighborhoods, the area could end up an underfunded expanse of urban sprawl, the authors say.

“Portland should be filled with neighborhoods where you should, within a half-mile, be able to walk to schools, stores and parks,” said Patrick Costin, of the Portland Society for Architecture, who worked on the report.

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The paper makes a few ambitious suggestions for how and where to create such neighborhoods, including re-routing Interstate 295 and making “Congress-to-Washington corridor into a grand boulevard for local businesses, housing, and useful green space”; refurbishing the the St. John/Valley Street area to complement the $500-million expansion of the Maine Medical Center; and further developing Morrill’s Corner.

Otherwise the Portland area may give way to urban sprawl and see “increasing expenses without a corresponding increase in tax revenue,” Costin said.

That trend has already begun, according to the report, which was written over six months in collaboration between Creative Portland, the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, the Portland Regional Chamber and the Portland Society for Architecture.

Four thousand jobs were created in the city between 2004 and 2014, but the number of people living and working in the city fell by 1,232 and the number of workers commuting to Portland rose by 5,000, the report says, citing Census data. Unless this trend is reversed and the city finds a way to attract and house more young, skilled workers, its tax base eventually will be too small to maintain its infrastructure and schools, which have been deferring renovations for decades.

“Portland is undercapitalized. It needs more [money] than it has from tax revenues to maintain the city infrastructure and invest in its future,” Costin said.

Whatever the specific locations of increased density, Costin and lead author Richard Barringer argue that the only way to grow the tax base is by proactively channeling development into areas where there’s already infrastructure — such as public transit — instead of reacting to private development on a case-by-case basis.

A number of private development proposals over the years have been met by fierce opposition from neighborhood groups — some even leading to referendums. And more recently, City Councilor Belinda Ray proposed a building ban to block the development of a condominium complex on Munjoy Hill over concerns the original design would block the water view from Fort Sumner Park.

Barringer, a professor emeritus at the Muskie School and former head of state planning in the administration of Gov. John Baldacci, said that if the city doesn’t embrace more intentional growth in population density in particular areas, the alternative is clear.

“Everytime you walk by a pasture where a farm used to be and see a housing development, that’s the alternative,” he said.


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