The Case for Intellectual Curiosity

5.8.16 | Housing

Last Monday, May 2nd, the Portsmouth City Council was asked to respond to a recent Planning Board recommendation against the rezoning of a pair of land parcels on Maplewood Avenue. You can look at past blog posts at  (like here, here, and here) for some background on this process, as it has made its way through the Board of Adjustment, the Planning Board, and the City Council.

The Planning Board has recently unanimously voted against a zoning change that would have moved these parcels from a residential type of zoning to a business type of zoning, with the intention of increased density for residential units far beyond the two units that would otherwise be allowed. A portion of these units would be used for “workforce” housing, meaning they would be priced below market rates. Most of the remaining “market rate” units would be one- and two-bedroom units, both of which are difficult to find in Portsmouth.

In most cases, a City Council would likely rubber stamp a Planning Board recommendation – in this case, killing the proposal. However, this City Council did something pretty unusual – it started with a question, and asked the Planning Board (and, in the long run, the community) to answer it:  What kind of zoning is needed to get to the desired outcome of citywide workforce and affordable housing while addressing some of the concerns that have killed all similar efforts over the past several decades?

A summary of the Council’s deliberation got at exactly what more elected officials at all levels of government need to do – start with the question of how to reach a policy priority, and seek out the information needed to efficiently reach the desired outcome.  For example:

City Councilor Chris Dwyer made a motion at Monday’s council meeting to have the Planning Board “look at it again,” and suggest other ways it could be rezoned. She encouraged the board to “actually look at the parcel without considering a proposed project, but to look at the parcel,” and “imagine what it should be.”

By approving the motion, Dwyer said, “we don’t simply file this nor do we put the developer on a path of stabbing wildly at the next kind of zone. … We may need a kind of zoning that we don’t have yet.” [Emphasis mine]

The concerns some opponents of the proposed zoning change fell into two categories. Some feared that knowing what the project would be on that property would be, in effect, spot zoning (or “contract zoning”). Others feared that not knowing what the project would be opened the door to bait-and-switch tactics. In this case, the zoning change could have led to a business or church on that property, rather than workforce housing and rental units – very different from what is being discussed. This creates a catch-22 which has the effect of shooting down virtually any project involving workforce housing.

Councilor Dwyer nailed it, though, by asking the right questions:  What do we want to happen on that parcel? What kind of zoning is needed to achieve the desired outcome? How do we make this process sustainable, replicable, and predictable?

Other councilors, including Councilors Pearson and Lown, and Assistant Mayor Splaine, highlighted the prioritization of housing in Portsmouth as part of a unanimous vote by the Council to bring this back to the Planning Board for recommendations on how to make workforce and affordable housing projects a reality on parcels like these.

None of what happened on May 2nd guarantees that these parcels on Maplewood Avenue – or anywhere else in Portsmouth, for that matter – will lead to specific workforce housing projects (though this sustained spotlight makes it more likely). What is so exciting, however, is that this City Council is exhibiting a rare combination in governance: The ability to methodically focus on the priorities that the community says matters most; and the intellectual curiosity and humility to start with a question, rather than a position.