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Land use policy, especially in our downtown, has the unique ability to reflect who we’ve been, who we are, and who we want to be. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the way we zone, develop, and preserve land in our community. The consequences of how land is used will usually be felt for several generations or longer, and will impact our economy, property tax base, housing options, transportation patterns, aesthetics, and even our sense of community. It’s understandable that some of the most impassioned activism in our community is on this topic.
With that said, the core challenge in crafting effective land use policy is that there are many highly-valued priorities in our community. In some cases, those priorities come into conflict. In other cases, it is assumed that we have to make undesirable choices, when that may not be the case.
So how can we bridge the divides that exist on this issue, and grow together in a way that embraces the palpable energy of Portsmouth’s future while celebrating and preserving our rich history?
The City of Portsmouth has less than 16 square miles of land. Compare that to other nearby communities, like Dover (almost 27 square miles of land), Stratham (virtually the same amount of land as Portsmouth, but barely a quarter of our population), or Rochester (over 45 sq. miles of land). Consequently, whether we are talking about commercial, residential, or public property, there is more pressure to maximize the purpose of each square foot — whatever that purpose is — than in any other community in New Hampshire.
This is not a judgment about how much property should be worth; rather, it is an acknowledgement of the power of supply and demand. There is limited supply (see the point above) of land in a community that, for reasons not likely to go away, attracts significant demand.
This invariably impacts the value of all land in Portsmouth.
These are a few of the facts from which our City Council and land use boards must then make decisions. There are many specific properties and projects that get discussed, but we don’t elect councilors and confirm land-use board members based on specific projects. They are selected based on the values they use to make future, yet-to-be-known decisions.
Recent developments have increased the amount of residential housing downtown, which carries many benefits for the community, but they are generally market-rate, higher-priced housing units. This shouldn’t be surprising, in that the current zoning laws, high consumer demand, and limited supply of land combine to virtually ensure that any traditional housing units will be relatively high-priced. If we want housing stock within walking distance of our commercial centers, there are only two ways to achieve it:
Our community says it wants more young people, service sector employees, artists, and non-wealthy households to be able to live downtown — rethinking what residential space can look like, and the zoning needed to achieve it in the context of a high-demand community, is necessary to make our aspiration a reality.
The amount of land in our city cannot change, but the way we use our land can increase the amount of usable, livable space we have. A look at our most historic section of downtown Portsmouth shows examples of our forefathers using density and even height in ways that should be considered.
Land use policy thinks of land not in two dimensions, but three dimensions (height). There is a false choice sometimes posed between choosing buildings that are attractive and architecturally appropriate, versus buildings that are relatively tall. However, height (along with floor area ratio) is arguably the most valuable tool in land use policy to incentivize desired uses and styles. If the right incentives are not used, development will logically tend to converge on styles and uses that minimize risk for the developers. Incentives to encourage density and mixed uses can provide the positive signals our community wants to send.
A look at the diversity of architecture, style, purpose, height, and density of many of the buildings we now consider as adding to the historic fabric of Portsmouth include many elements for which developers would struggle to receive approval today.
If we want a downtown that reflects our aspirations and values: affordable housing, sustainability, walkability, historic preservation, diversity of usage, energy, and vitality — then we need to look at height and density not as the barrier to our values. Rather, they are a means to reflecting our values.
There are currently a number of surface parking lots in and around downtown Portsmouth (including the Bridge Street Lot, the Worth Lot, and the Parrott Avenue Lot). There also is some call in the community to reinstate minimum parking requirements for new developments. These requirements diffuse parking with more small parking areas, meaning more of our downtown is being used for parking. It also puts market pressure on developers to focus on high-end housing with the remaining developable property.
Surface parking lots are one of the remaining remnants of Urban Renewal, a period in the 1960s and ‘70s which leveled historic neighborhoods, replacing them with concrete and pavement. Most advocates of New Urbanism, which focuses on walkability, mixed uses, and sustainability, strongly oppose the use of surface parking lots. They reduce supply of land for other purposes, increasing the price of remaining property. They create more traffic downtown as drivers search for parking. Paved lots are impervious surfaces, which pollutes both water supply and soil. They make downtowns less walkable, with more space between buildings, and are aesthetically unpleasing. Finally, in a city center with such limited supply of land, but tremendous usage by residents and visitors, surface lots do little to address our parking needs.