Painful flare-ups of Munjoy Hill disease, and why that’s not so bad

“A plague has infected Portland, and it’s spreading like a nasty rash from its point of origin in the city’s East End into neighborhoods and surrounding towns and beyond. It’s called Munjoy Hill disease. It may be incurable. The symptoms of this illness include a stubborn refusal to allow residential development to take place within the neighborhood’s borders and the appearance of activists willing to go to extreme lengths to prevent such new construction.”

So began a story by reporter Greg Williams, who wrote of how resistance to development in Portland was exacerbating sprawl and stifling the city’s economic growth. The publication Williams wrote for was the Casco Bay Weekly. The year was 2001.

A decade-and-a-half later, it looks like developers have cured the disease. New residential and commercial projects have sprouted like weeds all over the city, especially on Munjoy Hill, where the sound of saws and hammers is drowning out the songs of returning birds this spring.

Developers have been compelled to hold neighborhood meetings and listen to residents’ complaints about parking and other quality-of-life issues, but such concerns rarely result in significant changes to the plans. When projects fail or are scaled back, it’s almost always due to a lack of capital, not a lack of sympathy for neighbors. Meanwhile, the city is pushing forward with zoning changes that encourage more density and less-stringent parking requirements.

However, the current controversy over redevelopment of the Portland Co. complex off Fore Street shows that though Munjoy Hill disease may be in remission, it’s still prone to produce painful flare-ups. And that may not be a bad thing after all.

A trio of local developers, working as the entity CPB2, bought the old industrial complex beside Portland Harbor in 2013. Although their plans for the property remain a mystery, the Portland Planning Board unanimously approved zoning changes last month that will allow CPB2 to construct a mix of residential and commercial buildings along the eastern waterfront. Neighbors don’t object to the idea of the complex’s redevelopment, but they strenuously oppose the board’s decision to allow the developers to build structures that could rise as high as 35 feet along Fore Street, thus blocking views of the harbor.

A group of neighbors calling itself Soul of Portland has organized to oppose this and other aspects of CPB2’s project (like the possibility the complex will become a private, gated playground for the wealthy; a prospect that, like so much else about the plan, may or may not be real). The group is planning a rally in East Bayside on Thursday, and it intends to show up in force when the City Council considers the zoning changes on April 6.

I asked Soul of Portland organizer Nini Mc Manamy if there was room to compromise on the issue of development along Fore Street. After all, that’s just one section of a roadway that offers panoramic views of the harbor a short distance to the east, where Fore Street becomes the Eastern Promenade. These days, views from the area in question are marred by a rusty chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and strewn with wind-blown litter. The developers may be amenable to providing view corridors between their buildings, and there’d still be the Eastern Prom Trail, which provides uninterrupted views from the water’s edge.

“That’s a good question,” Mc Manamy replied. “Personally, I can’t see a reason to compromise.”

Soul of Portland members have been reviewing old tapes of council and planning board meetings and reading through a 2004 master plan for the area that they contend limits the height of any new development there. If CPB2 had to use the level of the floodplain as the basis for their building plans, rather than the existing grade of the site, no structures could rise high enough to block views from Fore Street. And Mc Manamy suspects it’s “more than possible” the developers have plans to build between the Eastern Prom Trail and water, so those views could be obstructed, as well.

It’s tempting to scoff at these objections and dismiss as ridiculous the idea that the loss of 100 yards’ worth of water views should stymie a major redevelopment. But the developers have invited such criticisms by refusing to provide even basic details of their plans. You can bet that whatever bank or investor is backing this project has a clear idea what CPB2 intends to build there.

To the extent that Soul of Portland’s activism forces the developers to come clean about their project’s impact, I wouldn’t characterize it as a disease. It’s more like an MRI that finds tumors before they spread and threaten to kill one of the neighborhoods that makes Portland a great place to live.

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.