VOTERS TO THE CITY COUNCIL: 50, 60 & 70 FT BUILDINGS TOO TALL FOR THE NORTH END OR ANYWHERE IN PORTSMOUTH

Folks pushing for more human-scale growth in Portsmouth want the Mayor and City Council to vote against the North End’s character-based zoning ordinance Monday (Aug 17) because it’s too big and too tall.The last Master Plan urged pedestrian-friendly, human-scale growth in the North End. But many say the once hopping neighborhood leveled by urban “renewal” is being overstuffed with overlarge buildings. “Like Urban Renewal, the City is again separating the North End from downtown instead of integrating it. Why allow monstrous over-development there? Why no tougher parking requirements? Why no water/sewer impact fees as other cities do to help pay for the new sewage treatment plant? We’ve added huge 24/7 water users like Portwalk and given them a free ride at taxpayers’ expense,” a critic noted.

Up for final OK Monday night, the North End zoning ordinance calls for four floors or 50 feet in most of the North End, five stories or up to 60 feet in the interior, with an extra floor most places if developers offer things like worker housing. Heights are stepped down to a more human-scale two to two-and-a-half stories within 100 feet of high tide, and building footprints are limited to 15,000 square feet (Portwalk III is 50,000 sq ft). On August 3, City Councilor Stefany Shaheen cast the lone vote against second reading of the North End zoning ordinance—not out of apparent concern for the city’s character– but so more weight could be given to the interests of “landowners,” echoing former Mayor/developer Peter Weeks’ bid for a delay.

WILL OUR ELECTED OFFICIALS KEEP THEIR HEIGHT LIMIT PROMISES?

Two years ago, citizens met amid outrage about development trends in Portsmouth. Noting that over 90% of all downtown Portsmouth buildings were 35 feet or lower, Portsmouth Now and hundreds of citizens pushed for the City Council to pass a 35-foot height limit to protect its character. Instead, in Sept. 2013, the City Council passed a 45-foot height limit with a Conditional Use Permit letting developers go above 45 feet if the pro-hyperdevelopment Historic District Commission said yes. During the 2013 City Council campaign, six of the nine City Councilors who won election—including Portsmouth Mayor Bob Lister, Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine, and City Councilor Brad Lown—pledged to back the new height limit without a CUP—which would have kept the whole downtown – including Harborcorp–no higher than 45 feet. However, on April 7, 2014, Lister, Splaine and Lown broke their promise during the decisive second reading and voted to exempt Harborcorp from the new height limit.

THE NORTH END: BENEFITING A FEW AT TAXPAYERS’ EXPENSE

“The North End has become nothing more than a real-life game of monopoly played by just a few developers—but the big losers are the citizens of Portsmouth,” the critic said. “We fought for a 45-foot height limit less than two years ago. Let’s see if City Councilors will now keep their promises and not let anything go higher than 45 feet in downtown Portsmouth.”

TO ASK YOUR ELECTED OFFICIALS TO SAY NO TO AN OVERSIZED NORTH END, IGNORE GROUNDLESS CLAIMS THAT ONLY SKYSCRAPERS MAKE PROFITS, AND VOTE FOR A LOWER, MORE SUSTAINABLE NORTH END, EMAIL: <rjlportsmouth@yahoo.com>,<jimsplaineportsmouth@gmail.com>,<lown@nhtrialattorneys.com>,<stefanyshaheen@gmail.com>,<esthersmarina@gmail.com>,<jdt@mind.net>,<zelita.morgan@gmail.com>,<cdwyer@rmcres.com>,<ericspearportsmouth@gmail.com>

PW wall edited

The size and scale of new North End development has caused widespread consternation  

 

PR Frenzy Revvs Up Before Next Wed’s Key HDC Harborcorp Votes

Orchestrated “enthusiasm” for giant buildings is revving up before next Wed’s (June 10, 6:30 pm) Historic District Commission public hearing and key votes on Harborcorp. Long as two football fields, the megadevelopment wants HDC  permission to sprawl undivided across three city lots and tower over the 45-foot height limit.

A well-funded PR effort on behalf of development and related interests is trying to sell the unsustainably large project as a way to get a “green” grocery store downtown, and lots of parking  for up to 1,400 conference-goers, 98 hotel rooms and luxury condos. Folks who want smarter, more human scale growth say that’s just smoke and mirrors. Worried residents predict the behemoth will wall off the North End from the downtown, usurp up more public parking because it doesn’t provide enough for its own needs and choke up traffic.

“It’s just too damn big,” one said.

“I wonder what the [grocery store] marketing departtment would say about their trade name being used to sell such an unsustainably huge project,” another wondered aloud.

HOW TO HELP: You can ask the HDC to do its job and encourage more moderate growth in keeping with our pretty historic downtown (whose character it’s supposed to protect so all the tourist dollars keep coming). Just email the HDC via llgood@cityofportsmouth.com and hope they pay attention.

Harborcorp would occupy three city lots and some worry it would wall off Maplewood

Harborcorp would occupy three city lots and tower over the 45-foot height limit

Urgent Letter to Key Portsmouth Land Use Boards looking for signers

Jerry Zelin asked us to forward you this letter to the Planning Board and HDC looking for signers. If you are willing to sign it, email Jerry ASAP with your full name and place of residence at GZelin@dwmlaw.com  Here’s the letter:

“Dear members of the Portsmouth Planning Board and Historic District Commission,

We would like to support Harborcorp’s project.  Here is what would earn our support.

  1. A division of the proposed building into two or three separate structures, connected by pedestrian bridges if necessary.
  2. Variability in building height.
  3. Adequate parking for tenants, employees, supermarket customers, and conference center guests.
  4.  A restrictive covenant barring conversion of the supermarket, conference center, and hotel spaces into a casino, even if state law eventually permits casinos.

Thank you for considering these suggestions.

Sincerely,

Your Name (xxx resident)

 

Questions About Parking Garage: Is this Taxpayer-Funded Welfare for Private Real Estate Developers?

With the Portsmouth City Council voting tonight on a $23.2 million dollar bond issue to build a second parking garage, critics of the process are asking: “Is this being rushed through? If so, why the rush?”CALCULATOR 2

“The proposal is to spend $23.2 million dollars to build 600 parking spaces in a massive six-story building over 60 feet tall.  Do the math—that’s more than $38,000 per space!,” a critic says.  “Further, as part of the $23.2 million in total costs, the city plans to pay $5.1 million dollars to buy the land.  Is the land really worth $5.1 million of Portsmouth taxpayers’ money? Has an independent real estate appraisal been done of this land? If not, why not? Only two years ago, the same garage proponents claimed that a 300 space garage on the Worth lot would solve all of our traffic and parking problems forever. So why today is 600 the new magic?”

IS THIS TAXPAYER-FUNDED WELFARE FOR DEVELOPERS?

To even the most casual observer, it looks like a driving force behind this parking garage is that the city did not require Portwalk to provide as much parking as some would say zoning back then required. Now Harborcorp is offering to provide only 523 on-site spaces for their massive 60 foot tall, curb-to-curb development. “Are we to believe that this is adequate for conferences of 1,300 people, a 98-room  hotel, more luxury condos, and a 40,000-square-foot supermarket? Does this meet the zoning code? Why are our city leaders not requiring private developers – like Harborcorp and Portwalk — to provide or pay for more parking? Why are we asking taxpayers to pay for the parking for private developers?  And please stop lying to us by claiming it’s not going to cost city taxpayers anything!  Parking revenues are just like property taxes – they are just one more source of general fund revenue  to pay for the city’s budget.  Parking revenues are the TAXPAYERS’ money that can be used for any purpose.

Also how come the proposed new garage and the Harborcorp proposal (the largest and most massive in the city’s history) are not in the city’s new 3D modeling software so citizens can see how massive they really are?  What more is being hidden from us? As the City Council votes tonight, how big will this garage be—60 feet tall? What about the 45-foot height limit? Why is this proposed parking garage not posted on the city website?  Who is this parking garage really being built for? Is this property tax welfare for private real estate developers?

 

 

Harborcorp Height Exception Before Planning Board Thurs

The Planning Board (April 16, 7 pm) will weigh in on whether the HDC should grant Harborcorp a special “Conditional Use Permit” to grow to 60 feet. Harborcorp is already 50% bigger than Portwalk III in a part of town many fret is headed for canyonization, traffic gridlock and parking trouble.

Here’s one critic’s take on why it’s fair to say no: Why the Planning Board should deny Harborcorp CUP Application (1) April 13 2015  And here’s his take on the megabuilding’s proportions: Why Harborcorp is too big etc vs other buildings

If you worry about the way Portsmouth is growing, you can email the Planning Board via jmshouse@cityofportsmouth.com and/or show up and speak. When the HDC gets the case, you can email it via llgood@cityofportsmouth.com. If the Portsmouth city administration, our elected officials and our mayor-nominated land use boards let it happen, here’s what it will look like: http://arcg.is/1HJ2NBU

Should Portsmouth Let Its Biggest Megabuilding Get Even Bigger?

In just 10 days, the Planning Board (April 16, 7 pm) will weigh in on whether the HDC should grant Harborcorp a special “Conditional Use Permit” to grow taller. Harborcorp is already 50% bigger than Portwalk III, a development whose size and style have shocked many in this city that prides itself (and markets itself) on its special character. Harborcorp’s North End-facing side stretches 660 feet long. Straddling three city lots, the building is as long as 11 buildings from Market Square down much of Congress Street.

Harborcorp-Titanic-Redux

If you think Portsmouth’s biggest development should be smaller, not larger, the decision-makers at City Hall and on the land use boards probably need to hear from you– even if you’re worried your concerns will fall on deaf ears.

EMAIL INFO FOR DECISION-MAKERS: You can email the Planning Board via jmshouse@cityofportsmouth.com and the HDC via llgood@cityofportsmouth.com

Here’s what it will look like if the city and boards allow it, according to the city website: http://arcg.is/1HJ2NBU

-o-o-o-

MORE INFO IF YOU HAVE TIME: The HDC has power over height, mass and scale of buildings in the Historic District. The Planning Board could advise the HDC to say no to going higher.

CRITICS CARICATURED: Harborcorp doesn’t have to be so big. But folks who would like it whittled down a little (also reducing resulting traffic and parking problems) have been caricatured as against progress, motherhood, apple pie, Whole Foods and Harborcorp. “Please– we just want the city to grow smart and walkable with quality buildings, on a scale humans feel good in,” counters one.

TRAFFIC AND PARKING: Aside from walling off part of the city, some worry that Harborcorp will bring in 5,500 to 9,000 more cars a day, and create only 54 parking spaces plus 100 via valet (for a 1000-capacity conference center with 280 staffers).

 

Charleston SC To Overhaul Building OKs– Some New Buildings Not Good Enough, That Mayor Says

Charleston SC’s visionary Mayor Joe Riley– who has won respect as the “Nation’s Best Preservation Mayor” for fighting to protect the character of his historic city as it grows– says some of his new buildings lack the quality and looks of the old that pull in the tourist megabucks. So on the advice of planner Andres Duany, the city wants to change the way it approves new buildings. Charleston, SC is famous as the home to the nation’s oldest historic district, and noone knows better than Riley that maintaining his city’s charisma is very good business. A key ally has been strong editorial support from its local, family-owned newspaper.Charleston article p1 March 2015

“Meanwhile here in Portsmouth, developers are proposing fake brick walls on the huge new convention center, Harborcorp wants permission to go higher than 45 feet and not provide enough parking under the current lax standards, and none of that seems to bother our HDC, our Planning Board, our City Administration, or most of our City Councilors,” a Portsmouth critic objected. “How can the city allow this to happen?”

http://www.foxnews.com/travel/2015/03/16/charleston-with-nation-first-historic-preservation-law-worries-about-new/

http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20150320/PC16/150329880

 

LTE On “Free” Parking Garage That The Herald Hasn’t Run

Here’s a letter to the editor that Portsmouth attorney Duncan MacCallum submitted to the Portsmouth Herald a full week ago, but which the Herald still has not run even though the City Council’s first vote on the parking garage is tonight. The letter takes dead aim at the City’s specious claim that “the new parking garage is going to pay for itself” and that the garage “isn’t going to cost the taxpayers anything”:

To the Editor:

I see that the business community and a number of city officials are still peddling the notion that, if built, a new downtown parking garage won’t cost the taxpayers anything because the entire cost of the garage will be covered by bonds, supplemented by a modest increase in parking rates.  (“City manager:  Parking garage will pay for itself,” Portsmouth Herald, 2/7/15; “A Good Plan,” Portsmouth Herald, 2/6/15.)  The argument goes something like this:  The construction of the new parking garage will be financed solely by funds coming from bonds and, over time, the bonds will be repaid entirely by parking revenues.  Hence, the new garage won’t cost the taxpayers so much as a penny.

Sorry, but I’m not buying it.

The main flaw in the proponents’ argument is that it takes a rose-colored view of the world and presupposes that everything will go as planned, and it disregards “Murphy’s Law”:  If anything can go wrong, it will.

So, the parking garage isn’t going to cost the taxpayers anything because it is being paid-for entirely by bonds, is it?  Try telling that to the taxpayers of Manchester, who were sold the same bill of goods in connection with the construction of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats baseball stadium twelve years ago.  The $27.5 million stadium was going to be built using bonds, and the plan was that the bonds were going to be repaid exclusively though a combination of $920,000 in annual rent from the Fisher Cats plus tax revenues from a newly-built, adjoining complex consisting of a hotel, retail shops, and luxury condominiums overlooking the ballpark.  The mayor and the board of aldermen approved the bonds, assuring the taxpayers that there had been “close scrutiny” of all aspects of the project and that it wouldn’t cost the taxpayers a nickel.  (Editorial, Manchester Union Leader, 8/17/11.)

To make a long story short, the developers of the condominiums and the retail shops unexpectedly pulled out of the project; no retail shops or condominiums were ever built; and today the taxpayers of Manchester are repaying those bonds to the tune of a half-million dollars a year.  (“Taxpayers Pitch In for Baseball Park Payments,” Manchester Union Leader, 8/15/11.)

And if you happen to have friends in Dover who are longtime residents, just ask them about the debacle known locally as the “second sheet of ice.”  It was “déjà vu all over again,” the taxpayers of Dover repeating the mistakes of the taxpayers of Manchester.  The City of Dover owned and ran an ice skating rink.  Some thought that there should be a second one.  A few taxpayer watchdogs, who were called malcontents and “nay-sayers” at the time, warned that the demand for skating was simply not sufficient to financially support the cost of building, maintaining, and operating a second rink.  Proponents countered that the demand was there, and moreover the second sheet was not going to cost the taxpayers anything, anyway, for it was going to be paid-for by a bond which was going to be repaid exclusively through revenue from hot dog sales and skating fees, and not by tax dollars.  You can guess the rest.  The second rink was built, and it bled red ink every year of its operation until the Dover City Council, in an effort to save face, eventually swept it under the rug by “declassifying” it as an independent enterprise and by simply absorbing the cost of its construction and operations into the city’s general budget.  Hence, the taxpayers of Dover are still paying off the bond today, despite the camouflage.

So much for the best laid plans of mice and men.  The experience of Dover and Manchester should give pause to anyone who thinks that a new parking garage isn’t going to cost the taxpayers anything.  How many opportunities will there be for Murphy’s Law to prove its own continuing vitality?  Let me count the ways:

First of all, if the only way that you can balance the parking budget and make the proposed new parking garage pay for itself is by increasing the parking fees at other locations, then the parking garage isn’t really paying for itself at all.  The proponents’ plan calls for across-the-board fee increases both at the existing High-Hanover parking garage and at the city’s metered, on-street parking spaces, and those increases are hefty ones.

They consist of 50% and 33% increases for on-street parking (from $1.00/hr. to $1.50/hr. in some areas, and from $1.50/hr. to $2.00/hr. in others) and of increases in the monthly fees for High-Hanover garage passholders from $135/mo. to $175/mo. for 24-hour passes and from $110/mo. to $150/mo. for 12-hr. passes.  Given these circumstances, I fail to see how anyone can seriously argue that the new parking garage “is going to pay for itself.”

With his usual insight, former city councilor Jerry Hejtmanek has recently pointed out that certain city councilors sang this same tune to us three years ago in connection with an earlier plan for a parking garage, promising that the new garage wasn’t going to cost the taxpayers anything–but without any provision for increased parking fees at other locations.  (“City must charge more for parking,” Letters to the Editor, Portsmouth Herald, 2/9/15.)  Why do we now need substantial fee increases to make the new parking garage pay for itself, he sardonically asks, when we supposedly didn’t need them three years ago?  In his letter to the editor, Mr. Hejtmanek bluntly answers his own question:  “This most recent proposal requires major rate increases and thus demonstrates the falsity of their [the pro-garage city councilors’] past pronouncements.”

So, how can we now trust the current revenue projections that the plan’s proponents are peddling today?  A recent comment by the city manager is anything but reassuring:  “I’ve thought about getting approval of the garage first.  That’s the key.  A lot of things we’re going to have to think about and discuss after that.”  (“Parking garage would include public art,” Portsmouth Herald, 2/27/15.)  Think about and discuss after that?

Secondly, I presume that the on-street parking spaces at which the hourly rates are to be raised will not be reserved solely for the use of tourists and other out-of-town visitors.  Rather, I assume that many taxpaying residents from the outlying neighborhoods will frequently–and sometimes daily–make trips downtown and will use those same parking spaces and pay those same higher rates.  (At least, I am not aware of any plan for issuing free or discounted parking vouchers exclusively to residents.)  Additionally, many of the monthly passholders at the High-Hanover parking garage reside in Portsmouth, and I similarly assume that there is to be no exemption from the monthly fee hikes in the instance of passholders who are residents.  The reality of the matter is that all of these increases are, in effect, a disguised tax:  the residents will have to pay more so that the proposed new parking garage can be financially successful.

It is an open question, of course, whether all of these rate hikes will ever be implemented.  Already, there are the seeds of a revolt afoot by resident taxpayer-passholders who bristle at the prospect of a 30% to 35% increase in their monthly fees for their passes.  (Martha McGovern, “Pass holders support local businesses,” Letters to the Editor, Portsmouth Herald, 2/16/15.)  It remains to be seen whether our city councilors will have sufficient political courage to approve such increases in the face of such an uprising, particularly in an election year.  If they do not, it will do serious damage to the city manager’s balance sheet for the new parking project.

I don’t think that shoppers, diners, and tourists are going to be too thrilled with the rate increases, either.  True, rates of $1.50/hr. and $2.00/hr. are still cheap by Boston standards, but this isn’t Boston, and visitors to Portsmouth are accustomed to cheap parking.  Don’t forget that those visitors used to be able to park free for the first hour at the High-Hanover parking garage–before our city councilors woke up and realized that we were giving away $400,000 in annual parking revenue by letting them do so.  A 50¢/hr. increase is just one more needling annoyance which may serve as a deterrent to those who would otherwise do their shopping, dining, and sightseeing in downtown Portsmouth.  Will visitors be willing to pay the increase?  Only time will tell.

And finally, the biggest question mark of all:  As Portsmouth becomes less and less attractive because of the continuing construction of monolithic fortresses in the downtown area and the homogenization of Portsmouth’s once unique historic character, and as it becomes more and more difficult for out-of-towners to get in and out of downtown Portsmouth because of the traffic problems that those monstrosities will create, it remains to be seen whether tourists and other visitors will continue to flock to the downtown area and fill both parking garages substantially to capacity–a supposition which I assume is part of the city manager’s math.  If for any reason there is a substantial decline, the city’s 20-year plan for repaying the bond solely through parking revenues falls apart, and the taxpayers will foot the bill.

I will save for another day a more extensive discussion of the fact that the vast majority of Portsmouth’s residents simply do not want another massive downtown parking garage in the first place, as was evidenced in part by the results of the last City Council election.  For the time being, suffice it to say that even if viewed strictly from an economic perspective, the proposed new parking garage is a bad deal for the taxpayers, particularly the ones who don’t live in or near the downtown area.  Our city councilors and officials can go ahead and lie to themselves and can continue to believe that the proposed new parking garage is going to pay for itself if they want to.  Speaking for myself, however, I have no affection for a plan that is based on voodoo economics and on revenue projections which amount to little more than wishful thinking.

Duncan J. MacCallum

The City Claims New $23.1 Million Parking Garage Won’t Cost Property Taxpayers—Excuse Me?

The City Council is poised to take its first vote tomorrow (Mon, March 16) on a $23.1 million parking garage based on a misleading premise. The City Administration and some City Councilors insist that the new parking garage won’t cost taxpayers a dime because they plan to use parking revenues to fund it– and therefore won’t have to raise the property tax rate. While Portsmouth may well need a garage now, let’s be straight with the taxpayers. Parking revenue is a revenue source for the city– just like property taxes or any other source of general fund revenue. City parking revenues could be used to pay for any public purpose, from reducing property taxes to filling potholes or providing more services to seniors.

“How can the public and our elected officials be so fooled?” objects a critic of the fast-tracked process. “Just because they put it in a piggybank called the parking fund doesn’t mean the City Council couldn’t legally vote to use the money for something else tomorrow. To insist that this parking garage will cost city taxpayers nothing is just not accurate. It’ll cost taxpayers $23.1 million dollars. If you want a garage, fine. But be straight with taxpayers about who’s paying for it!”

Gary's Beverage Lot where the city wants to put a massive, taxpayer-funded six-story garage

Gary’s Beverage Lot where the city wants to put a massive, taxpayer-funded six-story high garage

And let’s be straight about who benefits too, the critic went on. “The story of parking in Portsmouth is that city taxpayers pay and the developers make hay. Development projects in Portsmouth have the highest profit margins of any city in New England. The main reasons are that most Portsmouth land use approvals are fast and developers don’t have to pay a dime in any kind of impact fees (like for the city’s new $85 million sewage treatment plant). And the biggest reason of all is that developers don’t have to provide adequate parking. Frankly, this garage proposal should not be even considered until Harborcorp can first prove to the city that their new development will provide adequate parking under the city’s current, inadequate parking standards – weak standards that gave us the need for a parking garage in the first place.”

Here’s tomorrow’s agenda: http://www.cityofportsmouth.com/agendas/2015/citycouncil/cc031615ag.pdf

To ask our elected officials to be straight with taxpayers and hold an honest debate about using $23.1 million in taxpayer money to pay for a parking garage, email:<rjlportsmouth@yahoo.com>,<jimsplaineportsmouth@gmail.com>,<lown@nhtrialattorneys.com>,<stefanyshaheen@gmail.com>,<esthersmarina@gmail.com>,<jdt@mind.net>,<zelita.morgan@gmail.com>, <cdwyer@rmcres.com>,<ericspearportsmouth@gmail.com> You can also show up for Public Comment.