Stabbing Bayside in the Backside  

photo/Jay York

How Portland betrayed its poorest neighborhood 

“In a nominally democratic capitalist republic, the state and its planners have to perform a delicate balancing act: planners must proceed with enough openness and transparency to maintain public legitimacy, while ensuring that capital retains ultimate control over the processes’ parameters. The people must have their say, but their options must be limited. … Planners operate in a system that must appear open to the public, while simultaneously guaranteeing that ultimate power resides in the hands of propertied elites. It can be a really shitty job.”

— Samuel Stein, Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State, 2019

 “The redevelopment of Bayside, a land area larger than the Old Port and core downtown area of Portland combined, is not only important for maintaining a sustainable and competitive local economy, but also to provide good jobs, adequate housing and a reasonable tax burden for Portland citizens. The report gives testimony to the fact that one of Portland’s greatest assets is an informed and involved citizenry.” 

— Nick Mavodones, Mayor, City of Portland, from “A New Vision for Bayside,” Jan. 26, 2000

Portland’s Bayside neighborhood was born a dump and, 173 years later, much of it remains a wasteland, albeit one where a “luxury” two-bedroom apartment now rents for six grand a month and penthouse condos sell for a million and change.    

It was 1850 when Portland architect and developer Charles Q. Clapp paid workers to dump untold tons of dirt — scraped from the western face of Munjoy Hill above present-day Washington Ave. — into Back Cove, which back then washed up against Oxford Street, with the goal of building piers there to create a second waterfront. After the Great Fire of 1866, charred debris from ruined Old Port buildings was also dumped into the cove, further extending and essentially creating Bayside, which absent such interventions would merely be the northern strip of downtown. Yet more fill was dumped there in the 1960s to support the construction of Interstate 295’s path through the neighborhood, which completely severed the bay from this side of Portland.  

Throughout the century between those massive earthworks, Bayside was clearly divided between an unpopulated industrial zone (including a stove foundry, lumber yards and junk yards served by freight rail lines) on its lower, in-filled streets, and blocks packed with modest single- and multi-family homes above. The neighborhood became home to successive waves of immigrants, including Armenian refugees fleeing genocide who established a strong community there alongside Italian and Irish newcomers [see our article “‘Atrocity’ in the Forest City,” Nov. 2009].

But hey, a dump’s a dump, right? The short-sighted “urban renewal” movement of the 1960s led to the demolition of over 150 Bayside buildings to make way for Franklin Arterial, which became the neighborhood’s pedestrian-unfriendly eastern border (busy Forest Avenue is its western boundary). More than 100 other homes and businesses in the area were leveled in the cause of “slum clearance.” The racist mortgage-lending practice known as redlining further hollowed out and marginalized Bayside during this period.    

Still, Bayside’s biggest challenge, according to neighbors, had yet to stumble into town.        

Welcome back to 1987 (“Livin’ on a prayer…”), when, as now, Portland was facing a crisis over its lack of shelter beds. That was the fateful year city officials made a public commitment that no one in Portland seeking shelter would be turned away. A series of shelters were opened on the peninsula, all in Bayside, and social-service organizations mushroomed around them. The city’s dumping ground for burned timbers, scrap metal and refugees was henceforth also its dump for the unhoused, most of whom were also suffering from untreated mental and physical illnesses, addictions and disabilities. 

In 1990, when Jay York moved into an abandoned church on Wilmot Street, under the long shadow of the Franklin Towers public housing project, he had no idea its basement parish hall had been the first emergency shelter opened by the city three years prior — despite discovering bags full of donated clothes down there. 

It seems he wasn’t the only one who didn’t get the memo.  

“I had one break-in here where the guy had smashed my window trying to get in, claiming it was the shelter,” York told me last month during an interview at his place. “That was around ’96. I threw him down the stairs. And the police never charged him, because he really was fucked up. I mean, fucked up in a number of different ways. They put him on a bus to Boston.” 

It bothers York, this longstanding practice of cops kicking homeless people from town to town, but mostly because so many one-way tickets lead to Portland and, inevitably, Bayside, where most of the shelter and help is. A photographer of fine artwork by trade, York’s been documenting Bayside’s squalor in a long-running series of Facebook posts titled “Jay’s Morning Walk.” He also helped establish and lead the Bayside Neighborhood Association, formed in the late 1990s to address these and other pressing concerns. 

“We had the highest number of police calls of anywhere in all of Portland,” York said. “I called the police probably, for fifteen years, seven, eight times a week. Over not just, ‘Oh, somebody’s smoking a cigarette,’ or ‘There are kids on my lawn.’ No, it’s, ‘There’s a guy passed out in the street,’ ‘There’s a fight going on,’ ‘There’s a guy chasing another guy down the street — one guy’s got a hockey stick, the other’s got a machete.’ ‘Oh, there’s a shooting outside.’ ‘Oh, there’s gunfire right next door.’ 

Nobody in the city would have put up with that,” York continued. “We had to put up with it. The city’s answer to that was they threw more police down here. And, of course, we all know how that works: it never changed anything.”

photo/Jay York

The southeastern corner of Bayside where York lives only recently began to improve, he said, when the city announced it was moving its homeless shelter on Oxford Street to a new facility miles away at the edge of town. That move was completed months ago, but now York’s got a new hassle to bitch about. 

“Before, we were completely overrun by the homeless and the drug addicts and the drunks and the drug dealers and the human traffickers,” he said. “And now we’re overrun with developers!” He chuckled at the irony. York and his neighbors have been desperate for development for decades, only to be repeatedly suckered by city officials and hucksters selling massive projects with the promise of finally delivering Bayside from ruin.    

Rob Sylvain, a musician and educator who bought a house on Mechanic Street in the late ’90s and has also been active with the BNA as a member and officer, spoke of the “PTSD that the Bayside neighborhood has vis-à-vis developments that have come and gone. … We’re a little shell-shocked from all that. We’re starting to believe this idea that, well, if you don’t go our way, then it’s gonna go no way, so take what you can get. We’ve been a take-what-you-can-get neighborhood for fifty years.” 

It was one such grand idea — a proposal in the late ’90s by the Libra Foundation to build an arena, a public market and a giant parking garage in Bayside — that really galvanized neighbors to organize as a formal association. The arena, intended to replace the civic center on Spring Street, was never built; the market opened on Preble Street and closed a few years later due to mismanagement; but the garage — “which is a terrible blight on any neighborhood,” Bayside resident George Rheault observed — still stands.    

In 2000, city officials offered Idexx Laboratories a package of tax breaks and loans totaling $43 million to undertake a 24-acre expansion in Bayside, but the pet-drug company opted to stay in Westbrook. 

A decade later, after a few similar schemes flopped, the Florida-based Federated Companies floated plans for a lower-cased mega-project called “midtown”: four 165-foot-high apartment towers with over 800 units total, two more parking garages, and retail space galore. That deal, which also involved a lot of public money and land, collapsed after a group of local activists sued the city for approving the towers, citing the negative impacts they’d have on the neighborhood and their non-conformity with broader city planning guidelines. Federated scaled its plan back, but subsequent disagreements between the developer and City Hall turned nasty, doomed the project, and led to costly legal fights that are still not settled.     

Now into this void leaps Port Property Management, a local apartment-rental company also proposing to build 800 housing units in Bayside with tens of thousands of square feet of commercial space at street level. The PP team, which is developing this mega-project with partners and investors as a new entity called Reveler, has boasted that, unlike those other guys, they’re not asking for any city money. 

Unreported until now: Port Property founder and principal Tom Watson, acting as Tom Watson & Co., LLC, was awarded $20 million in federal Covid-rescue money last year, handed out via MaineHousing, to build what was later revealed to be the key piece of Reveler’s master development plan for Bayside: a 201-unit affordable-housing project on Elm Street. 

Watson and friends are also in line for another $50 million of public money in the form of loans and “tax credit equity” via MaineHousing. That $70 million roughly equals the Elm Street building’s projected construction cost, so we’re collectively buying this building for Reveler to use as leverage for the really profitable parts of its plan. On the bright side, the money does require Reveler to use union labor, at least to build this eight-story project.     

Thanks to Portland’s Green New Deal, passed by voters in 2020, at least a quarter of the units in big housing developments like Reveler’s must be “affordable” for people making less than the median income in Greater Portland. It’s called inclusionary zoning. But instead of including below-market units among the 600 ostensibly non-affordable apartments Reveler will rent in the seven new Bayside buildings it intends to construct over the next decade along Preble and Lancaster streets, they’re segregating all the poors into the Elm Street site. 

That decision is high on the list of criticisms neighbors have raised about the master plan approved by the city this spring, right up there with more common concerns like parking, traffic, and a lack of open or green space. Not only is this housing segregation “discriminatory,” said York, but it’s bound to foster the same problems the neighborhood has been trying to shed since the first Bush was in the White House. 

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, York lived next to the Kennedy Park housing project across the arterial, in what’s sometimes called East Bayside. Kennedy Park is “a far nicer place than it ever was when I lived there,” he said, “But for the longest time, having that many poor white people in a concentrated area, it was a magnet for everything bad that could go wrong. Whether it was drug dealing, prostitution, gangs — everything happened. 

“Now, can Port Properties take their requirements for tenants and only get the best of the poor?” he facetiously added, chuckling again. 

The answer is, Of course not, but not for lack of trying

Port Property will presumably rent its new buildings according to the same policy it applies to prospective tenants of several other big Bayside apartments complexes it already owns or manages. Those screening guidelines discriminate against anyone who’s run afoul of the law or a landlord in the past, regardless of their present situation or the details of past circumstances — such as “owing a previous landlord money,” one of several vaguely defined grounds for automatic denial, or “a criminal charge/misdemeanor involving dishonesty or violence.”       

Combine discrimination against all those trying to rise above past struggles with PP’s strict credit and earnings requirements for would-be renters (e.g., verifiable monthly income equal to two and a half times the rent), and you begin to see how deeply Bayside’s being screwed here. 

Practically no one living in the neighborhood today, either on the sidewalks or inside four walls, will be able or allowed to live in the Bayside of the future, where Port Property/Reveler will be, by far, the largest provider of rental housing. Homelessness and housing insecurity can only increase citywide as the last underdeveloped area of town becomes off-limits to those most in need of shelter and pushes rents higher citywide. (That aforementioned $6,000/month two-bedroom apartment is in The Armature, a 171-unit luxury apartment building Watson’s team is completing on Hanover Street.)   

The presence of families (traditional or otherwise) is crucial to any neighborhood’s safety, stability and vitality. But most of the units PP/Reveler currently controls or is planning to build are studios or small one-bedrooms. The average size of the apartments in the “affordable” Elm Street building will be only 615 square feet; the unaffordable ones will be even smaller, averaging 590 square feet of living space.  

“They don’t want families here,” said Christine Arsenault, who owns a home on Parris Street facing the backside of The Armature, and raised two daughters there while tending bar around the corner at Bubba’s Sulky Lounge. “My kids grew up with Rob Sylvain’s kids, and that’s it,” she added. “I thought there was hope when this [Armature] building was going up, but there’s only like seven or eight two-bedroom units, so you can’t have a family in that building. And now that the price is like $5,000 for those two-bedrooms, who can raise a family and afford that much?” 

Even Port Property’s harshest critics concede that the company is within its legal rights to do business this way. They look to City Hall to prevent or fix the problems developers and landlords like Watson cause or exacerbate. But as neighbors in the shadows of Bayside’s new buildings discover the hard way, there’s no help to be had by advocating within the system, because the system is the problem. 

“Honesty is the best policy!” 

Back in 1987, City Manager Bob Ganley didn’t call a press conference to announce Portland’s new policy of sheltering all comers out of the goodness of his heart or any principled concern for the homeless. He was forced to do so by collective action on the part of social-service workers and citizen-activists (both housed and unhoused) who established illegal protest encampments in front of City Hall and, after being booted from there, in Lincoln Park, between the courthouses and Congress Street, where local Occupy Wall Street protesters camped for months in 2011. 

Even then, Ganley stood his ground, threatening protesters with arrest. Only after a famous advocate for the homeless, Mitch Snyder, flew into town for a face-to-face meeting with Ganley did the manager finally relent. 

This dynamic is hardly new. It was Frederick Douglass who observed, in 1857, that “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”

Organized protest against Port Property’s gentrification of Bayside actually started four years ago. In September of 2019, tenants of the Bayside Village Apartments, located on Marginal Way between the InterMed tower and the Miss Portland Diner, rallied on the steps of City Hall to protest the company’s purchase of the dorm-style lodging house and its plan to convert those 400 affordable units to fewer than half as many market-rate apartments costing twice as much. Tenants claimed that neither Port Property nor the city informed them of the sale and related change of use, despite their obvious standing as interested parties, and that city officials refused to accept their formal appeal of the Planning Board’s approval.                        

Two weeks later, the Bayside Village tenants protested again, this time at a BNA meeting. “The redevelopment of Bayside Village is the cornerstone of the neighborhood-wide gentrification that Port Property and other developers have planned,” Peter McDonald, a Bayside Villager, said at the time. “If the Bayside Neighborhood Association is to actually represent the interests of all residents and not just be a glorified front group for gentrification and NIMBYs, then it must take an active interest in opposing this development, as it would irrevocably change the make-up of the neighborhood and pose a serious threat to the diversity that makes up its identity.” 

Bayside Village is now called The Linden. One-bedroom apartments there listed on PP’s website as “workforce housing” rent for over $1,900 these days. When one considers the Linden’s conversion in the context of PP/Reveler’s current and future developments in Bayside, it works out to a net loss of about 200 affordable units in the neighborhood, since the 400 units lost there would only be replaced by 201 subsidized apartments in the Elm Street building we’re buying for them.      

Watson and company also have the former Schlotterbeck & Foss Co. sauce factory on lower Preble Street, which they bought in early 2016 and converted into 56 studio and one-bedroom units called 117 Lofts. A listing last month for a studio there pegged the base rent at $1,660. Add in monthly fees for on-site parking ($150), WiFi ($65) and one pooch ($75), and you’d be shelling out $1,950 for a place with no bedroom. Actually, make that well north of two grand — “Tenant is eco-consciously responsible for heating and cooling,” the listing states, and, “Water, sewer and electric are conveniently billed back to the resident’s leger on a monthly basis.”  

While this factory conversion was happening, the city decided to sell six parcels of land nearby that had long been used for its noisy and unsightly public-works operations, which were eventually moved far off-peninsula. A June 2017 article in the Portland Press Herald, headlined, “Developers have some imaginative ideas for city-owned land in Bayside,” described the proposals under consideration.   

Jack Soley, a son of notorious Old Port slumlord Joe Soley, proposed 20 tiny (400 square feet) one-bedroom condos billed as “workforce housing” because, “at $200,000 or less,” they’d be “affordable” for people making up to 120 percent of the median income in Greater Portland (an area, it should be noted, that includes Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth, where hordes of millionaires reside). The city sold him a quarter-acre lot for $175,000, about half its appraised value, and Soley ended up building 23 condos, some selling for closer to $230,000, in his four-story Parris Terraces. All 23 units were under contract before the building was complete, Down East reported in 2019. 

Nathan Szanton, an experienced local developer, teamed up with Ross Furman — former proprietor of Skillful Vending, who owned numerous Bayside properties — to propose a 50-unit building on another public-works parcel that would include some subsidized apartments. Furman, who established Skillful’s warehouse in Bayside in 1981, selling pool tables, jukeboxes, and poker and cigarette machines to local bars, fancies himself a pioneer of the neighborhood’s resurgence, the ponytailed “Baron of Bayside,” as a mural down there depicting him flying a biplane declares. He’s not, having done little to improve the properties he owned, though his benign neglect of some buildings made them cheap enough for artists and musicians to rent. (Also to his credit, Furman was way, way ahead of his time in the recreational marijuana business.) 

The result of their successful bid was the Furman Block at 100 Parris Street: 36 one-bedroom and five studio apartments, all reserved for tenants 55 and older. A year after it opened, in January of 2022, one of the original tenants sent an e-mail to The Bollard hoping to call attention to the property’s many problems. His account serves as a useful preview of what future renters in the area can expect to encounter in Bayside. 

“We had eight overdoses in the parking lot in the first 6 months of living there,” wrote this now former tenant, who requested anonymity due to threats he said he’d received from criminals in the building. “There’s a huge problem in the [Furman Block] with drug dealers coming in and out,” he continued. “I counted 13 people coming in and out one night and when they came out they were tweaking … shooting up at our outside [area,] in front. I started taking pictures to document it and then I was fingered by one of the dealers who is a big dealer in town with the bicycle crew, [as] I call them. I could tell you at least three dealers that are up there dealing drugs to the homeless.” 

photo/Jay York

The tenant said management ignored his attempts to prod them to take action against the pushers and users. Rent, which this Section 8 tenant was initially told would be $800, turned out to be $1,100, plus $175 a month for parking “in an open lot where the homeless live [and] hang out.” The building’s elevator and water heater repeatedly broke down and had to be replaced early on, as did locks on all the doors, and the whine of electric saws cutting through walls to replace poorly installed piping went on for four months, he wrote.   

Neither the Szanton Company nor Saco Falls Management, which manages the Furman Block, responded to a detailed list of questions based on this tenant’s account. 

Watson proposed ideas for other public-works parcels. As detailed in that 2017 Press Herald article, he proposed to build a four-story building with 23 apartments, ranging from about 700 to nearly 1,300 square feet, that “would mostly have two bedrooms and two bathrooms targeting families or people with roommates.” He also floated plans for another parcel that would have “a restaurant, pub or cafe,” “spaces for artists to make and sell their wares,” and “a courtyard … that could be used as a small concert venue or farmers market,” reporter Randy Billings wrote. 

The city sold Watson two of its public-works properties on Hanover Street based on those general plans. The one where Hanover meets Kennebec Street, sold for $2.4 million, is now a handsome building that includes two craft breweries (Banded and Batson River) and the popular Wilson County Barbeque, among other commercial tenants. As late as February of 2019, Watson was still promoting the larger parcel above it, bought for $1.275 million, as “maker space” for artists, and renderings of those low-slung workspaces were made public. But he was also hinting that a change in plans was under consideration. 

“Housing is difficult to build because of construction costs now,” he told MaineBiz that February. “We’re weighing the variables. … Portland really needs apartments and it needs apartments in Bayside. So that would be a wonderful thing to do.” 

Wonderful indeed — for Watson, at least. Instead of workspaces for artists and a public courtyard offering fresh produce and live music, neighbors got The Armature.         

“It was supposed to be makers’ spaces for artists, and to this day, people still think that’s going to happen,” said Arsenault, who also lives right next to Soley’s condos. “In two years, they changed that, and all of a sudden it was this one-hundred-and-seventy-one-room, huge, block-size, monstrous, ugly building. Because I was played with the makers’ space, I was like, ‘It was supposed to be this, so can you at least give us a few artist studios? Not even huge ones — like, five hundred square foot?’”

The answer was a flat no, but Arsenault persisted. Recalling her comments during a public meeting about The Armature, she said she told Watson, “‘You guys gave us an ugly building. Parris Street’s on the back end. All the delivery trucks, all the noise — everything’s on that side.’” She asked the developer to include at least one entrance on Parris Street for Armature residents so she and her neighbors would have opportunities to meet and interact with them. 

That suggestion was also dismissed, but Watson was excited to tell “Christy” (he never could get her name right, Christine said) about the “living wall” they’d install on the back side of The Armature, beneath its private swimming pool. Instead of neighbors coming and going, Arsenault and her kids could chat with some creeping ivy or whatever.     

“I bought my place [18 years ago] and I was looking forward to having it become a community, neighbors and, like, families and stuff, and now this is happening,” Arsenault told me. “And then they conveniently made the inside of the [Armature] a communal space — there’s a pool, there’s fire pits, there’s lounge areas, there’s yoga studios, a bicycle repair shop” — despite the presence of a locally owned bike-repair business, Port City Bikes, just a few steps away.    

Like the gated golf developments favored by the rich, The Armature is designed to encourage community among its pre-screened, high-paying residents to the exclusion of the wretches outside its walls. Other amenities include an “arcade lounge and bar,” “pet wash + groom room,” “podcast rooms,” “workout pods” and an “indoor-outdoor fitness center.” If you order all your crap from Amazon and get meals delivered by Uber Eats, you can live in The Armature quite comfortably without ever daring to walk the mean streets of Bayside.    

“Honesty is the best policy!” PP’s rental rule-sheet declares. “Should we find that you have been dishonest during any part of the application process, we reserve the right to deny your application.” 

But what if you intended to have a small, quiet, cultured gathering at your place, and were given that place specifically because that’s what you said you’d do, but now you’re planning a boozy pool party for hundreds of your yuppie friends because that’ll be much more lucrative for you? What policy applies to that?      

Vision quest to nowhere  

“The City of Portland — and I don’t mean just the leadership of Portland, but the entire city of Portland — owes the Bayside neighborhood a huge debt, because we took the biggest problem they ever had, and the city kept it in our neighborhood for over two decades,” said York. “But they’ve never paid off the debt. They’ve avoided paying it off. I felt, and I still feel, that our city leaders should have taken a huge involvement in all development in Bayside, considering how neglected this neighborhood had been because of how they had set it up in the first place. 

“They let this happen,” York continued. “They saw the problem happening a long, long time ago and it got worse and worse and worse, and the neighborhood association continued to press them on it, and they did little things to kind of placate us, but they knew it wasn’t enough.”

As urban studies professor Samuel Stein observed in his book Capital City, quoted above, modern city planning is primarily an exercise in mass gaslighting — making the public think they have a meaningful role to play in a process designed for the generation of private profit. 

After Libra’s arena proposal went down in flames, the city convened a task force of three dozen stakeholders to plot Bayside’s future. Neighborhood leaders like York and Steve Hirshon (rest in power) joined shelter-providers Mark Swann and Elena Schmidt of Preble Street, commercial real estate shark Morris Fisher of Boulos Asset Management, and Chamber of Commerce head Godfrey “God” Wood, among many others, for marathon planning sessions that resulted in “A New Vision for Bayside,” released in 2000 with great fanfare.  

In retrospect, then-Mayor Nick Mavodones’ remarks in its preface are telling. Maintaining a “competitive local economy” (competing against neighboring communities like Westbrook, that is), helping the private sector “provide good jobs” and keeping property taxes “reasonable” are the plan’s primary goals. The highest aspiration for housing is that it be “adequate.” 

The future Bayside was divided into five sub-districts, like Bayside Avenue (formerly Marginal Way), a “tree-lined boulevard with esplanades and sidewalks,” “hospitality ventures, including a mid-sized hotel … and several restaurants,” where “the storefronts are bright and lively” and “window patterns and rooflines are representative of Portland’s best.” 

“That was gonna be a real urban neighborhood,” Sylvain bitterly recalled, “and it’s really a suburban, Anywhere U.S.A. shithole, because it was pieced together without any regard to the master plan that the city [established] before.” Sylvain’s Marginal Way neighbors now include Dunkin, Walgreens, Planet Fitness, and Trader Joe’s, whose ill-planned parking lot is widely considered the tenth circle of hell.

Most of the housing was expected to be clustered between Oxford Street and Cumberland Ave., in a “neighborhood district” called Bayside Heights. “By the year 2000, the neighborhood had sadly fallen from its pre-war strength as an in-city residential district and mixed use corridor,” the Vision’s authors wrote of their time. “Many old houses were in severe disrepair, and landowners actually found greater gain by paving and leasing parking spaces than by maintaining or building houses.”   

But better days were just over the horizon: “These trends have been completely reversed since then, with key developments and public-private partnership investments,” the Vision’s authors hallucinated. “The City of Portland got the ball rolling with its In City Housing Finance Program, addressing pent-up demand for low-cost, affordable, and market rate housing units. … The Bayside Heights Neighborhood has made a big comeback, with over 500 new and rehabbed units,” they wrote, using the odd future tense vision-speak and referencing a program to help locals buy homes that never actually materialized. 

The “heart and soul of lower Bayside” would be an 18-acre district called Kennebec Crossing, located along the three blocks of Chestnut Street between Oxford and Somerset streets. A “plaza that provides year-round open space and entertainment for workers and residents” sits at the center of this imaginary place, where “[f]amilies, senior citizens, and young professionals enjoy the funky urban village atmosphere made up of galleries, cafés, movies, ice cream, micro-breweries, and coffee houses for night and day life.” 

There’s definitely plenty of open space there year-round (weed-choked lots and surface parking), and it’s certainly funky, but less in the “endearingly quirky” sense of the word than the “smells like ass” sense. Substitute cheap liquor and fentanyl for the ice cream and lattes and you’ve got a more accurate picture of what Kennebec Crossing has to offer in 2023. 

“I can remember that was my first process of going through and having them break the room into smaller groups and putting up boards where you push all your [ideas around],” York said of those visioning sessions. Only after participating in a second lengthy planning process for Bayside did York realize “really what that was about was stifling strong opinions, and a lot of open dialogue about those issues, because they didn’t have any control over them,” he said of city planners and developers. 

“It’s always either way too early or way too late for any given question,” Sylvain said of the city’s planning charade. “The process is designed to encourage development and stifle dissent.”

Rheault, a general-practice attorney and frequent critic of the city who’s running a write-in campaign for mayor this fall, has felt the same frustration. “That is the hardest thing for a neighborhood: where do you engage?” he said. The developer is “spending tens of millions of dollars, so … what does the neighborhood constituency have a right to complain about? 

“When you have these big commercial projects, it’s like you have to hire experts to go against their experts, and who has the time to do that, or the money?” he continued. “And so the neighborhood has to be very, very involved early on, and that is, I think, what never happened here.”

One of Portland’s dirty little secrets is that a lot of informal wheeling and dealing goes on behind closed doors well before major developments are unveiled. If you’re a developer, “you must start meeting with the movers and shakers in that neighborhood that can cause trouble,” Rheault said. “You have to kowtow to them, you have to make offerings, you have to wash their feet, depending on how extraordinary and controversial your idea might be. 

“That process works great in certain places, and completely falls apart in other places,” he added. In parts of town with strong neighborhood groups and well-connected leaders — like East Deering, home of former Portland Mayor Cheryl Leeman (who’s currently running Mark Dion’s mayoral campaign), or the Western Prom, where ex-Mayor Anne Pringle lives with her white-shoe lawyer husband, Harry — developers know to tread lightly. But Bayside has been “the perennial sacrifice zone,” said Rheault. “Nobody wants development anywhere else, but here, politically, we can pull this off,” developers and city officials figure.  

An initiative like the New Neighbors Program, piloted by the state housing authority in the late 1990s in Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, helped rough neighborhoods like Munjoy Hill revitalize by helping new homeowners afford to buy one-to-four-unit buildings that they lived in and fixed up. York said similar ideas were discussed for Bayside 25 years ago, but went nowhere. Had the New Neighbors program continued (or the imaginary In City Housing Finance Program been pursued), Bayside’s redevelopment would likely have taken place incrementally, one double- or triple-decker at a time, undertaken by workaday people who’d live there and, who knows, maybe have a kid or two. 

Instead, the city and state routinely shovel tens of millions of dollars at big developers in the futile hope that they’ll build enough “affordable” housing to ease the “crisis” places like Portland have been in since Bon Jovi broke big.  

If the BNA got early word of Reveler’s plans, they’re not saying. Association president Sarah Michniewicz, a seamstress who ran a failed campaign for City Council two years ago and had not previously held elected office, declined an in-person interview and repeatedly failed to answer the question of when she first realized what Watson was really plotting.    

She did, however, write, “the full scale and detail of this, or any development plan, isn’t knowable until the applicant’s submission is made public via the City portal… [her emphasis]. The community is always in reactive and defensive mode, and doesn’t have a lot of sway. There’s rarely consensus about what to support or reject, and the end result won’t satisfy everyone. It’s not a great system.” 

Through its spokesperson, Jessica James of local PR firm Longfellow Communications, Reveler also turned down our request for an in-person interview, but agreed to receive questions via e-mail. After receiving those questions, all of which pertained to points raised in this story, they declined to answer any of them. 

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