Each year, Portlanders of all stripes come together to argue over a big hot button issue. In recent years, public debates over panhandling, the Maine State Pier, view ordinances, evictions, and Congress Square Park have dominated civic discussion. 2018 was the year of the emergency homeless shelter. Here’s what to look out for in 2019:
Councilors Belinda Ray and Spencer Thibodeau have thrown in to unseat Ethan Strimling in the mayoral race. Personally, I don’t see the appeal of the job. Due to Portland’s wackadoo charter, the mayor isn’t really a mayor (in the executive sense), but actually a popularly-elected city council speaker. This recipe has made both Portland mayors un-popular with their city councilors for whom they are supposed to speak. Perhaps a councilor-turned-mayor will be more acceptable, but it remains to if any of the bunch can play follow the leader.
Handicapping the race is difficult because hanging over the contest is the problem of siting a large homeless shelter. Will one of the candidates pull an October surprise with a popular solution?
In the meantime, can more be done to relieve the situation in the current shelter on Oxford Street? Why not restore the traditional traffic pattern to the area? Could the city open up its emergency bomb shelters (mostly built during the Cold War) and commit to staffing them?
According to judicial rulings and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, faith-based institutions may provide emergency shelter for people experiencing homelessness. In other cities, and on any given night, volunteers at a church, mosque, or synagogue will host a dozen or so people with a bed and a light meal. If Portland and communities around the state can find a few institutions to serve as shelters on a nightly basis it could reduce the city’s commitment by third or more.
Of course the best solution to homelessness is housing. Market-rate affordable housing may sound like an oxymoron, but what it comes down to is that the luxury market might be saturated and developers are beginning to build smaller, cheaper units. While still beyond the reach of many Portlanders, the chances of freeing up older stock at a lower rate is greater than with luxury condos. Massive zoning changes and accessory dwelling units should be the first market-based solution. Higher population density leads to increased land values and greater social cohesion. But is there the political will? They’ll be bucking up against the owners of sacrosanct single-family houses on quarter-acre lots.
What happened to all the young people who were working on the Franklin Street redesign? It’s been a long 10 years and more than a few grey hairs. Recently the city dropped $4 million on a proposal for short-term recommendations for Franklin, focusing on improving traffic flow at the Exit 7 interchanges and sprucing up Commercial Street. Critics said it prioritizes tourists and commuters. Councilor Ray expressed concern about inducing demand. Markos Miller, the Franklin Committee Co-Chair, lamented that past priorities like reclaiming land for development, multimodal street design, and addressing the medium strip were not mentioned. Nor for that matter how it would fit with the Bayside Master Plan and stormwater separation. The item was taken off the January agenda and tabled until September.
Speaking of Commercial Street, with fish stocks threatened by overfishing and the fact that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, the Portland waterfront is now seen as a fertile ground for large-scale development like for companies like WEX and Pierce Atwood. But development is always a hot-button issue and some would say it comes at the expense of Portland’s soul. A recent moratorium on waterfront development led the city to convene a task force to study the issue. But bearing in mind that Commercial Street is built on landfill 20 feet below the original waterfront (which is Fore Street), will sea level rise get adequate consideration?
We just have to wait and see.