Maine’s development conundrum

A rendering of the first phase of the proposed Midtown complex in Portland's Bayside neighborhood.

A rendering of the first phase of the proposed Midtown complex in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood.

A week ago, Doug Thomas, a former Republican member of the Maine Senate and the Maine House from Ripley, wrote a special column to the Bangor Daily News, entitled “Our economy won’t improve if we reject development.”

Certainly, I couldn’t possibly agree with him more. But then again, I would be hard pressed to find anyone who rejects that basic principle.

Unfortunately, the conceptualization of “supporting development” and the actual real world steps necessary to support it are very often misaligned.

Ask most members of any political ideology whether or not they think development is necessary for growth, and you’ll almost always get a yes. But go to their town with a development proposal, and you are likely to see those same people fight against said proposal.

In the worst spirit of NIMBY-ism, growth and development is a good thing to a lot of people, so long as it happens somewhere else. In our own towns and cities, we want to “preserve the village charm” or “stop the wrong kind of development.” Unfortunately, these valid concerns frequently morph into outright hostility to anything new being built or anything changing in a community.

Ironically, many of these people are the very same ones who complain about Maine’s youth exodus. As towns grow older and communities get sleepier, they become less attractive to not only teenage and college-age young adults, but young families as well.

Perhaps you think I’m complaining about rural Maine’s hostility to newness, but the problem actually seems to be worse in the most “urban” areas of the state.

Take Maine’s largest city, Portland. It boasts an obscenely low vacancy rate for both residential and commercial rental property, yet there is high demand for it. High demand and low supply means higher prices.

Yet this is the kind of city Portland municipal officials and residents apparently want. The same people, incidentally, who complain about Portland’s higher rental rates. Projects are assaulted by groups like the hilariously named “Keep Portland Livable,” and political leaders do not have the fortitude to stand up to them.

Take the now famous Midtown project, which has been in development hell for five years.

Five. Years.

After unending hostility and pressure, desperate to get anything done, the developer agreed to cut the height of its already laughably short proposed buildings in half, while dropping the number of residential units from 650 to 445. The investment the company would make in Portland was cut from $105 million to roughly $75 million. And even after all that, there still isn’t any certainty in the project.

In Portland, density is a dirty word, despite it being the most basic tenet of good city planning. Instead, the city chooses spread-out, remote buildings that are short and compact, which ironically increases “sprawl,” which so many of these groups of citizens despise.

But, density creates concentrated areas of population, which more easily support shops, stores, community centers and neighborhood life. A more dense, development-friendly city could drive a major economic boom.

And we aren’t talking about New York City-level density here, with its 27,012 people per square mile. No one wants to turn Portland, or any other Maine city, into a major metropolitan center like that. We can and should retain its colonial, small city feel. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a great deal more vibrant and alive.

Portland’s current population is roughly 66,000 people. On its current footprint, if it had the population density of Boulder, Colorado, it would have a population of 84,111. Sacramento, California? 101,521. Rochester, New York? 125,409. Alexandria, Virginia? 198,481.

Those cities are all walkable, charming, small cities. I’ve either lived in or spent significant time in each, and none of them is suffocated by people or overdeveloped in an unhealthy way.

Portland having a similar philosophy behind city planning could potentially double its population (and economic output) while not losing its character. Heck, it could go “development crazy” and mimic the density found in Boston, and that would produce 272,619 Portlanders.

The point here goes well beyond Portland, and it also goes well beyond density. Suburban towns are hostile to change as well, though their hostility typically relates to opposing a road being built, or an addition being made to a supermarket.

Maine simply can’t afford that mentality anymore. The notion that newness, growth, and building destroy the character and personality of Maine is not true now, nor has it ever been.

Quite the contrary, this opposition to growth is what is changing the character of Maine. Where once was a prosperous, vibrant, living collection of true communities, we now see dying towns, cratering student enrollment, ancient commercial and residential building stock, and insolvent municipalities.

That is the true legacy of the anti-development movement, and it is what is really changing Maine.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.