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The Other Budget

We hear about “the budget” a lot. Every city has a budget. And we all know what it means – the city collects taxes, and then spends that money on public goods and services. Some expenses are largely fixed and uncontroversial – fire departments, for example. Other expenses we all recognize as being necessary, but quibble over how much to spend and on what – like police and schools. Still other expenses are entirely up in the air and up for debate, such as recreation, events, market incentives, individual welfare, etc. Also up for debate is how much we raise in taxes and how. Should we boost property taxes to increase the budget? Or should we try to squeeze more out of the fees the city charges for services? Or should we slash the budget so to slash taxes? In the money budget, both the inflow and the outflow are fluid; we can change both if we want.

But every city has a second budget, a land budget. A city only has so much space within its limits, and we have to decide how to use it. But unlike the money budget, while we can decide how we want to spend our land budget, we can’t expand it. We only have what land we have, and unless we absorb surrounding towns – we’re never getting any more.

Landscape with Woman and Man Playing a Hurdy-Gurdy, c. 1540, Domenico Campagnola

So where does that leave Portland?

As you probably know, Greater Portland is in a critical housing shortage. Despite significant population growth, we’re building very little housing, leading to leaping increases in rent payments and house prices. The solution is complex in its simplicity – build more housing.

But as many have asked in reaction to this, “Where?”

Where, indeed.

Many people understand housing in Portland in such a way that boils down to “on-peninsula” and “off-peninsula”. On-peninsula is where the apartment buildings are, off-peninsula is where the single-family houses are. Downtown and suburbia. A common divide in any city, Portland isn’t special. It’s as natural as can be. Right?

Maybe not. We’re primed to think of suburban neighborhoods full of single-family houses ringing around a downtown as just being a natural phenomenon, inevitable as death and taxes. It’s the free market! Suburbs must naturally just happen. But this is an illusion. These kinds of suburbs are in fact highly artificial, unnatural creations created by government intervention. When property values rise, landowners are incentivized to use it more efficiently, graduating from single-family houses to multifamily structures, and if values keep rising, to towers. But due to 20th century zoning laws, this natural cycle is distorted. Suburbia is built because it’s illegal to build anything else. Don’t believe me?

Here’s a (simplified) map of Portland’s city limits.

Lovely. Now, let’s see a (simplified) map of the land which is currently zoned as suburbia. That is to say, in which it is illegal to build anything other than suburbia.

Yikes. That’s a lot. And mind you, this excludes parks, office parks, waterfronts, shopping centers, the jetport, etc., as well as residential neighborhoods zoned for denser development. It also doesn’t even to take into account areas technically zoned for denser development but that are hamstrung by historical preservation measures and other overlays. And it obviously doesn’t include the actual suburbs, South Portland, Falmouth, etc.

I am not reaching here, this is land in Portland that is currently designated by law, in the Land Use Code, to be filled with nothing but inefficient, unfair, detached housing. In this yellow area there are strict minimum sizes for plots, and maximums on how large buildings can be relative to their plots. Building height, setbacks, footprints, and total unit count are all strictly regulated. It is against the law to build anything except what you see.

Okay, things are slightly more complex than this. Exceptions can be, and have been, carved out. Old buildings are grandfathered in. Parts of the indicated area do permit limited multi-family units, though still in a suburban mold with heavy restrictions on density. Included in this yellow blob are multiple zoning categories, which differ slightly in specifics, with different development patterns cropping up in different places. And its also possible (in fact likely) in my attempt to streamline this information, slight errors around the edges weren’t caught. For the love of God, do not use this image as a legal resource. But for the most part, this is the reality. All that yellow is government-mandated suburbia.

For a more detailed map and breakdown of Portland’s zones, I recommend this excellent resource on Livable Portland’s website. (Livable Portland is unaffiliated with the DSA campaign with a similar name. These folks came first.)

Now we have to ask ourselves, as citizens – is this a wise use of our land budget? Your answer may be ‘yes’. If the 1970s single-family home with a big yard and spaced-out neighbors is your personal pinnacle of civilization, and you think long commutes and high housing costs are a fair price to pay, then you probably want more of this map to be yellow.

But for the rest of us, especially we who weren’t so lucky as to buy a house forty years ago, couldn’t this land be put to better use? I’m not advocating skyscrapers in North Deering, but maybe allowing some more flexible density wouldn’t immanentize the eschaton. I’m mostly talking about the “missing middle” strata of development, as seen below. Places where people can comfortably and cheaply live.

Diagram of Missing Middle Housing Types. Source: Opticos Design, Inc.

At the public level, we should be seeing to it that accessible, environmentally-friendly, affordable housing units are built densely and efficiently on the land. And at the private level, we should be liberating landowners to build what makes sense for them to build on their own property. As a progressive, ‘deregulation’ is a dirty, dirty word to me, but I’ve made the leap of imagination necessary to understand that zoning, as we know it, has got to go. It has a history of racial discrimination, economic exclusion, gentrification, and environmental catastrophe. It currently is preventing us from adequately addressing the housing shortage. Government-mandated suburbia is a terrible waste of the land budget.

But there’s more to the land budget than zoning. Let’s talk about another hot-button issue – parking. Portland raised the parking fees for on-street parking meters recently, and while the response was mostly muted, there was the typical grumbling about having to pay more. But let’s think about parking. Parking takes up a massive amount of space, especially on the peninsula where space is so valuable. On-street parking demands that streets be wider, leaving less room for buildings. Off-street parking means that lots which could be used for people houses are put aside for car houses. Garages may be great, able to fit a ton of cars on a relatively small amount of land, but parking lots are almost uniformly a massive waste of space. Imagine if instead of the eyesore that is Top of the Old Port Parking, we had, say, a thousand apartments there instead? Or if instead of virtually every apartment building being required (by law) to have an off-street lot, we allowed people to live on the peninsula without cars, and used that space to fit in more housing? Or to just make the housing already there more spacious! I’m not picky.

Remember, as you look around your city, every 3 parking spots you see in Portland could’ve been at least one apartment instead.

It’s not just parking lots in which we see asphalt taking up so much space. Euclidian zoning, (the ten-dollar term which just means delineating zones geographically) leads to the places where people live, the places where people work, and the places where people shop all being in different places. Is this really necessary? I once had the privilege of living across from a grocery store, and let me tell you – it rocks. I’ve also lived within walking distance of my workplace on multiple occasions, and that rocks too. Its incredibly liberating to be able to get to the office, or the store, or church, or the bar, without needing to worry about gassing up the car, finding parking, or having a designated driver. I want to be able to live in an apartment building and walk downstairs to buy a sandwich. Four floors and a deli store!

The Columbia Hotel, Portland, Maine, c. 1935
Note: “Hotel” in this context refers to a residential building. See more.

But since we don’t allow for this common-sense mixed-use zoning that was literally the way that all human society organized itself for centuries, and instead we force people to live far away from the places they’d actually want to go, that means we have to spend way more of our land budget on roads, adding new lanes to handle traffic, parking lots everywhere, and letting a highway slice our city in half.

To be clear, I am not trying, nor have I ever tried, to guilt anyone into walking, cycling, or taking transit as their main mode of transportation right now. Transportation is downstream from urban planning. We drive cars because we live in a city in which driving cars has been the accepted norm for decades, and the city has been designed accordingly. But note that this is why driving in the Old Port is so terrible! That’s a part of town designed before cars were a thing, and preserved ever since. I want to help rebuild the city in such a way that alternatives to the automobile make sense – not try to use alternatives to the automobile in a city in which they don’t make sense.

I’m not anti-car primarily because of the environment, or climate change, or public health, or inequality, (though all of these things are worsened by the dominance of the automobile.) I’m not really anti-car in general, if you love cars, great! You probably love driving them fast out on country roads. Godspeed to you. But inside cities, I’m anti-car because they’re expensive, they’re a hassle, they’re noisy, they take up a ton of space, and they shouldn’t have to be a necessity to own. When I lived near my work and walked every day, I didn’t buy gas, I didn’t pay for car insurance, I didn’t pay for repairs, I didn’t make car payments. That adds up to be quite a bit of extra money in my pocket.

And it’s quite a bit of extra money in the city’s pocket too. But it’s not just the money budget, as we now know. It’s the land budget too.

When you look around Portland, try to keep this idea in mind. The land budget. How are we using our land? It’s very much finite, and we already have people saying we’re all out. But are we really? I don’t think so. I think just like a household has to manage its budget, or a government has to manage its income and expenses, Portland has to start thinking about its land budget, and how we want to spend it.

Ashley D. KeenanAshley is an editor of The Portland Townsman, writer on urbanism, local small business-owner, and Maine native. Her work primarily covers the national housing crisis, building sustainable and livable cities, responsible market economics, and New England culture and history. She lives in Portland with her fiance and can be personally reached at


  1. Robert O'Brien Robert O'Brien

    Disappointed to see again Portland’s successful historic preservation program (HP) singled out without any citation or evidence as to it being detrimental to housing density. Indeed, virtually none of the city’s historic districts are in the suburban housing zones called out in this article. Each district has a proportion of properties specified as “noncontributing”, which today — by right — may be demolished and redeveloped with some of the densest residential allowances in the city. Some of the city’s largest housing developments in recent history have gone through HP; see: The Hiawatha, 201 Federal (soon to be Portland’s tallest building), the Mercy hospital redevelopment, West End Place, the Equinox, Winter Landing, Winter Street townhouses, Avesta’s Carleton Street, Deering Place, 510 Cumberland Ave, 409 Cumberland, 155 Danforth Street, and Hobson’s Landing, to name a few. Almost all of the NIMBYism toward these projects melted away when they went to design review by HP.

    Ironically, the author cites The Columbia Hotel as the idyllic downtown block. This building was eviscerated before historic protections went into place and for years looked like this as a USM dormitory: (also see Google Maps Street View at 645 Congress Street in 2009 and 2007). Recently, developers rehabilitated the building into a once-again vibrant apartment block, but it will never regain the charm of its original architecture (that inspired the author to showcase it) that defined that section of Congress Street along with the Lafayette Hotel that it faces.

    • I hope I didn’t offend, my only reference to historical preservation in this article was one off-hand comment about other ways in which development might be constrained beyond strict residential zoning. A good historical preservation board, as I believe as you said, “with members who *want* to say yes”, is a great asset to any city. However, they can also be yet another tool in the belt for anti-housing activists if weaponized. In Portland, I think there is much history to be preserved, and a vernacular aesthetic to maintain, and fostering a more growth-oriented historical preservation board would be spectacular. And I believe we’re in agreement that in terms of anti-housing restrictions, historical preservation is small beer compared to other factors.

      In any case, I agree wholeheartedly that the charm of that era’s architecture is something special. If it can be persevered, and even recovered, without putting too great a burden on construction, then I’d be over the moon.

  2. Robert O'Brien Robert O'Brien

    Not offended, but need to defend Portland’s HP program against detractors.

    I liken the HP board to the Justice System’s jury trial. It’s human and imperfect and at times it gets it wrong, but that doesn’t mean a “jury of our peers” isn’t the best justice system out there — it just means we should strive to make it more just. As you say, an HP board populated by appointed members who work WITH the developers to meet the code’s standards to have a successful project (“how can we get to ‘yes'”) is a wonderful asset for both the developer and the public’s interests. I have heard developers say many times, “We didn’t know what we were getting into in coming before the HP board, but we truly believe we’re leaving with a better project now.” I’ve heard abutting residents say on several occasions, “I was panicked when I heard this development was going in across the street from me, but you all on the board have asked the same questions of the developer that I had, and I trust that you have it under control.” I believe that a Design Review board like HP is the antidote to NIMBYism. The key is, as you say, to maintain a board culture that’s productive (and not obstructive) in getting a developer to ‘yes.’

    • A productive board culture being the “antidote to NIMBYism” is an interesting idea, I’m not sure if I’m with you all the way there but I think there’s definitely truth to it. If the people of the city can be credibly assured that their heritage and vernacular are being preserved, it would make sense that much of the hostility towards change could be sanded down. But then the question becomes how do you ensure such a culture of *productive preservation* doesn’t degrade into *stagnant preservation*. Eternal vigilance, I suppose.

  3. And then there is the city’s other other budget:the capital improvement plan. But sticking to land use, not only is low density zoning a shame it has effectively erased from consciousness the many missing middle projects sprinkled about the R3-5 zones that persist while city officials pretend that they are not there.
    And although I love an old building, I think historic preservation is best for commercial zones like Congress Street and the Ye Olde Port, I’m just not in love with a lot of the recent residential projects.

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