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Commission Reports, Franklin Street, and Thomas Park – City Council Review 2/26/2024

On February 26th, 2024, the City Council dispatched with several large-ticket items, including a $1.2mm loan to save an affordable housing project and a major step towards rebuilding Franklin Street, with relative ease. A dustup over the name of a park brought out a passionate historical debate, and the reports of commissions to the body raised questions of priorities and ethics.

Councilors Pelletier and Rodriguez were absent this evening. First, as always, the meeting opened with a period for public comments on topics not on the night’s agenda.

General Public Comment

Matt Ramirez kicked off a train of comments pre-emptively urging the City Council against making any significant cuts to the school budget. While no such budget has yet been decided upon, Ramirez expressed his concerns that the “anticipated shortfall” could result in the schools bearing some of this pressure. Four commenters in total would echo this sentiment, stressing the importance of well-funded education.

Other than a brief comment from Steven Scharf relating to the technical difficulties which the meeting would be afflicted with, the only other person to offer a general comment was regular City Council observer George Rheault. Following the theme of budgetary concerns, Mr. Rheault inquired on the relationship between the city and Ecomaine, its recycling and waste disposal partner. Ecomaine will, Rheault said, be replacing and moving their recycling facility, and this could incur obligations to the city. He asked that this issue be reviewed by the council’s Finance Committee. He further asked for greater transparency relating to the repayment of a Section 108 Housing and Urban Development Department loan which had been extended to the city for the failed Midtown development. This multi-million-dollar payment by the city, Rheault said, should be more seriously scrutinized in the present budgetary environment.

Proclamations and Appointments

Moving on from public comments, the City Clerk read into the record Proclamation 16, recognizing and congratulating a number of restaurants as semifinalists for the James Beard Awards. These exceptional eateries include BaoBao Dumpling House, Norimoto Bakery, Artemisia Cage, Bar Futo, Honey Paw, Leeward, Woodford Food and Beverage, and Zu Bakery.

While only one proclamation was read on Monday, a great many individuals were appointed to various positions in the city’s administration. First, Sustainability Director Troy Moon was unanimously appointed without comment to the Landcare Management Advisory Committee, (f/k/a the Pesticide Committee,) representing the City Manager.

Next, the following persons nominated to a variety of posts were introduced as a bloc for general approval:

George Rheault stepped forward to comment on this item, focusing on one re-appointment in particular: that of Austin Smith to the Planning Board. Rheault claimed that Smith, a prominent architect whose practice is active across the region, often needs to recuse himself from planning items; so often, indeed, that it’s as if “we have a hole in the team.” Recognizing the inherent difficulty of maintaining a panel of expert professionals who don’t also have frequent conflicts of interest, Rheault nevertheless stated that Smith was an outlier. He noted Smith’s “very animated” activism in a long-running lawsuit concerning a proposed development in Munjoy Hill, and accused him of conducting himself inappropriately for a representative of the city.

In response to this objection, Councilor Fournier recalled the difficulties the appointments committee faced in trying to recruit disinterested-yet-qualified volunteers. Still, she felt as though Rheault’s concern was a valid one, and suggested the city ought to be tracking the number of recusals which board members have to make; after all, she reasoned, if a member is constantly recusing themselves, “How is your expertise serving this committee?” Corporation Counsel Goldman noted that he’d be open to the idea of implementing some sort of tracking system.

Councilor Sykes echoed Fournier’s concerns, “I think this is a really valid question.” She expressed skepticism towards the practice of “automatically” re-appointing current board members, and proposed looking more critically at mass appointments like this going forward. Mayor Dion joined others in remarking on the inherent tension of balancing expertise with neutrality, and invited Planning Director Grimando to offer her perspective. Grimando stated that Austin Smith’s recusals did not seem problematic to her, and that there’s been “no hint of inappropriateness” around his behavior.

With this assurance, the appointments passed unanimously as an emergency.

Consent Items and Licenses

Two festivals were approved as routine consent items: the Resurgam Music Festival along Portland’s waterfront on June 9th, and the Shakespeare in the Park Festival in Deering Oaks starting July 11th. Both were approved unanimously and without consternation; a representative of the Fenix Theatre Company, which is putting on the Shakespeare performances, thanked the council for their cooperation.

Three licenses were also approved that night: Highroller Lobster Co.’s expansion into 106 Exchange Street, Blue Lobster Urban Winery’s changing its license to that for a Class A Lounge, and Argenta Brewing Company’s addition of outdoor dining. These all passed unanimously and with minimal discussion.

Unfinished Business

First on the agenda for unfinished items was Order 118, appropriating $1.2 million from the Jill C. Duson Housing Fund for the pending construction at 45 Dougherty. This project, which would consist of 63 units of workforce housing, had been thought to be adequately funded, but during the approvals and planning process costs had risen unexpectedly high, according to Greg Watson, Director of Portland’s Housing and Economic Development Department. Now, the builders were asking for a generously structured 30-year loan in the amount of 1,200,000 dollars to cover the shortfall.

Despite the significant cost to the Duson Fund, and some expectation of discussion, no public commenters stepped forward and no City Councilors had much to say. Councilor Ali, chair of the Housing and Economic Development Committee, briefly stated his support for the loan, but otherwise the issue swiftly moved to a vote. The loan was approved unanimously.

Franklin Street

The process of overhauling Franklin Street, ameliorating the serious alterations to the city’s landscape made during 20th century urban renewal, had been languishing in bureaucratic purgatory for some time. For a full history of the notorious road, read Markos Miller’s pieces in the Townsman, here and here.

This Monday, the City Council was asked to approve a new study grant to pick up the process once more, studying the practicality of reforming the arterial road. With this study conducted, it is hoped that Portland will become eligible for federal grants to further draft blueprints and begin construction. Maine’s state-level Department of Transportation has agreed to match up to $150,000 in funding for the study.

The preliminary designs which Portland has explored would result in the reclamation of a significant amount of public land for development, the expansion of city-owned parks, and greater infrastructure for cyclists, pedestrians, and public transit, while at the expense of roadside “green space” and potential road-widening options.

Several commenters stepped forward to offer their support for the study, but with slightly different spins on what the priorities of the project ought to be. Activist Wendy Cherubini was the first to speak, urging the council to ensure the city’s department heads were active and involved, and stressed the importance of reclaiming “several acres” of public land to be turned into “thousands of rental units and millions [of dollars in revenue] from land sales.”

Meanwhile, Bill Weber of the Portland Climate Action Team stressed the environmental importance of the project, demanding that any new building done on reclaimed land meet strict sustainability requirements. Another commenter focused on the all-important element of housing supply, and another on the urgent need for safer, “complete” streets. Despite these different undertones, all public comments were in favor.

The Council, however, had little to discuss by comparison. With virtually no comments from any of the council members, they approved the study as Order 119 unanimously.

“Thomas Park”?

Next up came orders 122 and 130, both concerning a little triangle of land between Congress, Lowell, and Burnham Streets. This small plot of city-owned green space had, until then, had no formal name on the books, but had been known by a number of different names. The City Council was being asked to officially christen, (or rechristen,) the little park as “Thomas Park”, commemorating the once-locally famous Thomas family. These orders would also, almost incidentally, formalize the addition of the new North Deering Park to the recreational roster of the city.

First to speak on the matter, appropriately enough, was Elias Thomas, who introduced himself as the direct descendent of the Thomases who were the putative namesakes of this park. He explained how in 1913, the city had officially recognized the plot as “Thomas Park”, but that in the intervening years this name had somehow been lost and struck from city records. In the last year or so, he went on, this effort had been made to restore the name “Thomas Park” and hopefully kickstart a process of renovation for this underutilized piece of public land.

Steven Scharf, in typical fashion, commented on the more technical elements of the proposal, asking the city to clarify the multiple ambiguities which had – in part – allowed the name of this park to become muddled in the first place. He specifically asked for all of the city’s recreational land to be “thoroughly vetted” and fully described in law.

Next to speak was Herb Adams, who delivered an eloquent account of the Thomas family in Portland. He described them as sophisticated and generous, early abolitionists and feminists who would have civil rights celebrities like Frederick Douglass or Susan B. Anthony at dinner, alongside a poor man who was invited to have a warm meal off the street. Adams also elaborated at length about a recently uncovered story in which the 19th century Elias Adams adopted and raised a black orphan as his own, never trumpeting this fact and indeed fairly well concealing it from history until now. Adams explained that he didn’t do it for fame or fortune, “He did it because it was right.”

However, a major tonal shift followed when Mr. Rheault stepped forward to offer his comments. Skeptical of the hagiography which had been painted around the wealthy, Gilded Age Thomases, he focused on the sparse record which the advocates claims relied upon. He agreed that city had named the triangular park “Elias Thomas Square” in the 1910s, (“How a triangle can be a square is a conversation we’ll have to have later,” he quipped,) but otherwise cast doubt on other claims. The playground on the site, Lowell Street Playground, had been the much more well-known and widely-used name, Rheault claimed, and the neighborhood whose families had cherished this park had been largely destroyed by the I-295 expansions in the 20th century. He urged the council to not bend towards the claims of this wealthy, landed family, and to instead carefully consider how they’d like to name the park on their own.

Some of Rheault’s exhibits of historical evidence can be found here.

After this scathing rebuttal, the comment period resumed with Seth Sprague, another descendent of the original namesakes. He reminded the council that the park had been called Thomas Park until 1928, when the name just vanished (likely in error) from the city’s books. “Their generosity shouldn’t be erased due to a simple oversight.” He also intimated that if this commemoration was restored, more donations may well ensue. Two representatives of local neighborhood organizations also voiced their support, and their hopes for further development of the little triangle.

Several City Councilors raised their own concerns about the renaming process, beginning with Councilor Ali asking Manager West what the process even was. West explained that, while there was no precise rule set to follow for this relatively unusual occasion, the process went like this: First, the Parks Commission receives a proposal, and members of city staff perform the background research, (legal, historical, etc.,) necessary to provide adequate context. Then the Parks Commission renders an advisory opinion to the Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee, which likewise reviews the research and comes to their own recommendation. Finally, it goes before the City Council as a whole, which has the recommendations from the two smaller bodies but has the right to choose any course of action, recommended or not.

Councilor Bullett asked whether there was any sort of formal policy for conjecturing or choosing names for parks. Parks Director Hipple responded in the negative, explaining that no such system had been necessary. Names are usually proposed with some strong justification, or otherwise as neutral descriptors. This didn’t quite satisfy Councilor Bullett, however.

“History should inform our present, but it must not dictate our future,” she continued. “All of Portland is on unceded Wabanaki land.” She evidently believed that a wealthy, white, colonial family like the Thomases were not the sort of people which Portland ought most be commemorating. “Generational wealth was not built without the labor of many who would never own land themselves.” She asked that city staff apply an “equity lens” to naming new parks, and perhaps devise a standardized system for selecting names.

Stepping back from the thornier concepts, Councilor Phillips explained that she had worked with the Libbytown Neighborhood Association on this project and supported the renaming. Believing in the correctness of restoring the name “Thomas Park” to the land, she said that things should be set back to how they were.

Without further discussion, these orders passed unanimously.


The council would next receive annual reports from three city bodies. First, the Public Art Committee submitted its report, which was unanimously received without further discussion. It can be read here.

Next, the Land Bank submitted its report, which can be found here. No public comments were made in response to this, but Councilor Sykes did raise some of her own concerns. “I admit I wasn’t very familiar with the Land Bank as a new councilor,” she began, before asking whether the Land Bank could be used for the purchase or development of public housing. She further asked whether, if it could not, what arm of city government would be empowered to do so.

The City Manager quickly responded, explaining that the Land Bank was for passive recreation and preservation of open space, not housing. Sykes asked what happened to tax-acquired properties vis-à-vis the Land Bank, to which West explained that while the Land Bank had the opportunity to review and make offers (with public funds) for foreclosed property, that they didn’t typically end up with such land. She further encouraged Councilor West to discuss the matter further in private.

The report was then unanimously received.

The final report came from the Parks Commission, and can be found here. Director Hipple explained, in submitting the report, that the greatest challenges facing the department had been the overwhelming homeless encampments, and equity.

Stepping up to give a final public comment for the evening, George Rheault aggressively criticized the Parks department. From abandoning its commitments in the Bedford-Noyes renaming dispute, to financial irresponsibility, to complicity with “not in my backyard” activism, he claimed the Parks Department in Portland had been without serious oversight. Mayor Dion got into a brief argument with the commenter, trying to ensure he stayed on topic, but Rheault continued. “Groups of citizens in this town are allowed to lobby hard for gentrification” using the Parks and Land Bank bodies, obligating the city to “spend, spend, spend, spend, spend, spend on all this land we’ve acquired but can’t maintain.” He asked the council, especially the new councilors, to investigate these activities further.

The report was received unanimously without further comment.

The final vote of the night was a more straightforward affair, transferring the trusteeship of a musical education scholarship to an already-involved nonprofit group. This transfer would save the city in administrative costs, while the group intended to grow the fund’s resources for the benefit of music students in Maine. With only brief clarifying questions, the council unanimously approved this transfer of the Kotzschmar Memorial Trust to the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ.

Following first reads, the meeting was adjourned at 6:50 pm.

Ashley D. KeenanAshley is an editor of the Portland Townsman, with work focusing on the mechanics of local government and housing policy, and also a member of Portland’s Historic Preservation Board. You can reach Ashley personally at


  1. Tyler Tyler

    As always, a great summary of what sounded like a productive and low-drama City Council meeting. Thanks for attending so we don’t!

    Greg Watson’s title appears incorrectly in the article. He is the Director of Housing & Economic Development.

  2. Tim Tim

    Excellent work. This is so valuable. Thank you.

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