Portland is pregnant with another downtown

The only small thing about the controversial residential and retail development being planned for Portland’s Bayside neighborhood is the first letter of its name: midtown. It’s like a developer’s inside joke — propose to build four apartment towers, each as high as 165 feet, with two parking garages and two acres of space for restaurants and shops, then market the massive project as though it were not important enough to warrant capitalization.

Nobody’s fooled. There’s plenty of capital involved: about $150 million to build the whole thing over the course of the next decade. And when you consider the larger impact this development is likely to have on the city, its lower-case moniker seems appropriate. In the future, lower Bayside will be known as “midtown” in the same sense we’ve long called the area above it “downtown.”

Like downtown, midtown will be defined by tall buildings and dense with restaurants, shops, offices and apartments. Once completed, the project’s four towers will be home to upwards of 2,000 new residents, roughly doubling the neighborhood’s population. In addition to the 100,000 square feet of new retail space at the base of the towers, more commercial and residential development is sure to follow on surrounding blocks, many of which are under-developed remnants of Bayside’s industrial past.

The news that Portland is pregnant with a second downtown should be cause for celebration, but as with most pregnancies it’s also causing a lot of anxiety. A vocal minority of city dwellers, spurred by an ad hoc opposition group calling itself Keep Portland Livable, wants to abort midtown before it’s born.

Its main complaint is that this baby’s too big: It’ll cast long shadows; it’ll change the view; it’ll be windy around its corners sometimes. Critics who spoke during the planning board’s marathon public hearing last Tuesday night likened midtown to the Berlin Wall and predicted it will transform Portland into Newark, N.J., a “dehumanizing, brutal place.” A resident of tony Baxter Boulevard warned the board against “destroying the iconic skyline of the city.” A young guy who lives in the Old Port called midtown a “blocky disaster.” Keri Lord, a Parkside resident who served on the task force that created a master plan for Bayside in the late 1990s, declared that midtown “destroys the nature of Portland” and undermines trust in city government (as though, in the wake of the Congress Square Park debacle, any remained).

Though I think Keep Portland Livable’s arguments verge on the ridiculous — most of their gripes could be lodged against any tall structure erected on the earth’s surface — it’s encouraging to see citizens get passionate about even the mundane details of a major construction project. Many who spoke at Tuesday’s hearing had constructive ideas to improve the development, like widening the sidewalk along Somerset Street and making the backside of the buildings, which abut the Bayside Trail, attractive and accessible to passersby.

It’s telling that some of Bayside’s staunchest defenders don’t appreciate midtown’s most strident critics. “I’m a little tired of being talked at by people living in other neighborhoods,” said Steve Hirshon, a longtime Baysider who hosts a weekly morning show on radio station WMPG.

Hirshon and his neighbors have long endured the negative consequences of living in the blighted backside of town among brownfields, dumpy houses and dilapidated industrial structures. The homeless shelters and other social-service providers clustered in the area draw hundreds of desperate people struggling with mental-health and substance-abuse problems to Bayside’s trash-strewn streets. (Earlier this fall, residents of the 16-story Back Bay Tower were alarmed by the growing number of used syringes found littering the property.)

Midtown’s critics decry the fact its developer, the Federated Companies, plans to rent the high-rise apartments at market rates — reportedly in the range of $1,300 to $1,700 per month for studios, one- and two-bedroom units. But Bayside already has two affordable-housing projects, Unity Village and Pearl Place, and one of the largest subsidized-housing complexes in the city, Kennedy Park, is just across Franklin Street, in East Bayside. This is exactly the mix of affordable and market-rate housing the city’s master plan, A New Vision for Bayside, envisioned.

Midtown is hardly a done deal. Federated has only submitted detailed plans for the first phase of the development (one tower and one parking garage), the success of which will determine the fate of the rest of the project, and numerous proposals in recent years for similar projects on the peninsula have died before the first shovel could break ground. But if midtown succeeds, light a cigar and pop the champagne. This big baby promises to make Portland proud.

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.