PORTLAND , Maine — One thing’s clear about Tuesday’s vote to raise Portland’s standard for selling public parks: Rockbridge Capital’s purchase of 9,500 square feet of Congress Square Park had been approved; now it’s not.
But among people on both sides of the close vote, whether it was only about that development or something more remains an open discussion that comes against the backdrop of a city on the rise that’s adjusting to a higher profile and more interest from developers and others.
“That’s kind of the heart of the whole issue: people are starting to see a lot of money flowing in and that’s trumping other things and are we preserving Portland?” said Evan Carroll, an architect and resident who grappled with the referendum question. “I’ve never seen something that has been more divisive amongst the people I know.”
Developers and business community leaders said they don’t think the contents of the new ordinance — which requires a supermajority or public vote on the sale of public parks and is now under review by the city — will cool what has in recent years become an increasingly hot real estate market.
“There’s essentially no impact on development within the city of Portland,” said Drew Sigfridson, a commercial real estate broker and president of the Maine Real Estate and Developers Association. “The reason that the whole vote happened in my opinion was to stop the sale of 9,500 square feet to the Westin Hotel.”
While most of the business community sees Congress Square as the focal point of the referendum, according to Portland Regional Chamber CEO Chris Hall, some are concerned that the vote will have broader implications about planning projects in the city, sending a message to prospective investors that they may simply be making a down payment on a headache. But Hall said that depends on a few things.
“The hypothetical is that if there was another significant investment somewhere in the city, what is the trigger for another citizen initiative and what level of council action or planning process is enough before you can feel comfortable without being challenged at the ballot box?” he said. “That’s something that’s up to each individual investor … I have no doubt that in some cases it will have an impact but whether there’s any negativity with it, it’s too soon to say.”
But Bree LaCasse, a real estate developer and leader of the group supporting the referendum, said the vote Tuesday wasn’t about being pro- or anti-development.
“The other side is trying to make it into a larger issue but our focus is public parks,” LaCasse said. “The vote was about the 60 parks that we gave protection to.”
And that, she said, will bring its own economic benefits.
“I do think Portland is thriving. Everywhere you look there’s new development and I do think that’s great,” LaCasse said. “We want to preserve what makes Portland unique because that’s what’s driving this development and I think our public parks and public spaces are part of that.”
Patrick LaRoche, owner of the Congress Street co-working space Think Tank and supporter of the referendum, echoed the idea that improvement of the city’s parks stands to attract businesses, young entrepreneurs and creative types to the city.
“I know about placemaking as I run a [business] incubator space. It’s about creating space that’s inclusive and attractive and our public parks are indicative of our city’s ethos around that,” LaRoche said. “I see the public space as being a key component to our brand as a city.”
The referendum raises other questions about how Portland addresses future land-use questions as well, according to Sarah Schindler, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law who focuses on land-use law.
“Is this a new trend where people try to get heightened scrutiny for other land-use issues and other issues we typically leave to elected officials to handle?” Schindler said, noting that there are advocates for putting more focus on land-use issues such as affordable housing. “Let’s say we decide that’s important, too. We now have a supermajority and direct democracy component to parks, why not do the same with affordable housing?”
Those are the types of questions that Carroll hopes will get more attention from the referendum that put a land-use topic at center stage.
“My concern is that it sort of stops here,” Carroll said, noting there’s more to discuss. “Just on Monday, the planning department and society for architecture hosted a guest speaker who spoke on ways to have shared-use intersections. That discussion was really interesting, but, as an example, changing intersections from being predominantly car use to bikes and pedestrians doesn’t solve any of the equity issues. That involves changing public transportation. And who knows when that’s going to change.”