Portland vs. Federated: A soap opera in one act

On Monday night, the Portland City Council approved a series of changes to the complicated agreement it struck with the Florida-based Federated Companies, which plans to build a big residential and retail project in Bayside, dubbed “midtown.” It was the latest twist in a tortuous saga that’s been dragging on for over five years. In addition to being complicated, the details of the deal are deathly boring, so in an effort to spice up the topic, I’m presenting it here as a dialogue between two characters in a soap opera — which, come to think of it, isn’t too far removed from the actual tenor of the discussions.

A rendering of Federated Co.'s proposed Midtown project in Portland. Image from Portland Planning Department.

A rendering of Federated Co.’s proposed Midtown project in Portland. Image from Portland Planning Department.

Federated: Portland, my darling, how have you been?

Portland: Well, look who’s back, the Emperor of Empty Promises. I trust you had a wonderful winter in the Sunshine State while we were freezing our collective behinds off, staring at the vacant lots across from Whole Foods that you pledged to develop half a decade ago.

Federated: Please, Portland, let’s not fight anymore. We’re ready to move forward this time, I swear. We just need a few minor modifications…

Portland: Talk to the hand, Federated. If you keep stringing us along we’re gonna make some modifications to your face.

Federated: Portland, please! Don’t talk like that. We expect those kinds of threats from Boston, but not from a civilized city like you.

Portland: I’m sorry, it’s just we’ve been burned so many times before. You’re hardly the first developer to waltz in with beautiful blueprints and letters of credit from big banks, only to leave us high and dry. I admit, when you showed up five years ago you swept us off our feet. Eight hundred new market-rate apartments in the midst of a housing crunch, a million square feet of residential and retail space with the potential to revitalize a blighted part of town! We should have known it was too good to be true.

Federated: It’s not our fault, and you know that. Those crazy citizen activists of Keep Portland Livable took us to court, complaining the buildings would cast long shadows and make it windy and all that other nonsense. We had to cut the number of apartments in half and reduce the retail space, but your Planning Board OK’d the new plans last March.

Portland: Right. And a couple months later you started talking about building hotel rooms instead, and cutting the number of apartments roughly in half again, to 260 units.

Federated: I know, I know. We’re sorry. We must’ve been drunk. We didn’t mean that.

Portland: And when we pointed out that the sale agreement we signed years ago had expired, you threatened to take us to court! Remember those rumors going around last summer that you intended to sell the rights we gave you to develop this publicly owned land? Your spokesman, Patrick Venne, told the Press Herald at the time that the rumors weren’t true. And I quote: “We’re not shopping this around.” Then this month I read in the paper that — again, I’m quoting — “Federated is now marketing the residential portion of the project for sale to another development company.”

Federated: Yes, and you also must have read our founder and chairman Jonathan Cox’s comments in that article, where he explains, “This approach, only one of many being considered, is very ordinary given the project specifics.”

Portland: It’s “very ordinary” to bring in an outside party to actually develop and manage your project? Listen, mister, you Miami playboys may do business that way, but we Mainers don’t swing like that. Up here, if you promise to build something, you build it. You don’t change the plans half a dozen times and then tell us you’re looking to sell the project before it’s even under construction.

Federated: Welcome to the wonderful world of real-estate speculation, Portland! You can’t turn back now. You need us more than we need you!

Bob Ganley (bursting through the door): Think again, you pathetic Marlins fans!

Portland: City Manager Ganley! But this is impossible! You died 16 years ago!

Ganley: Ha, ha! Clearly I did not! Chief Chitwood helped me fake my death so I could go undercover on a secret mission to save the city from snake-oil salesmen like these clowns! I’ve been posing as a panhandler on the median strips for years, harassing anyone with out-of-state plates to discourage gentrification.

Federated: Oh crap. We’re doomed.

Ganley: You’re damn right! Now listen here. You bozos get shovels in the ground by June and starting building those apartments or I’ll rip up that fat file in the planning office containing all the agreements and use the confetti to throw a ticker-tape parade down Congress Street. Capisce?

(Camera zooms in on Federated’s sweaty, panicked face. Dramatic music swells. Cut to commercial.)

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.