May 26—Portland officials believe they can build a 200-bed homeless services center in Riverton even if a citizen referendum meant to derail the project is approved by voters in November.
Such a scenario, however, would require the project to receive all of its approvals by mid-October — an admittedly tight timeline, city officials say.
While city officials say they are not rushing the project, some critics of the plan say they should wait to hear from voters.
"I can't imagine that our elected leaders, Mayor (Kate) Snyder and our city councilors, would try to rush approval of this plan in an effort to subvert the will of the voters in November," said Bill Higgins, director of Homeless Advocacy for All and a leader of the referendum effort. "Why not let their constituents have their say once and for all?"
A group of residents is currently gathering signatures for a referendum that would limit new shelters to 50 beds. It's intended to apply to all pending applications after April 20, when the group began the petition process. However, city officials say a state law would allow the project to move forward if it is approved far enough in advance of the referendum vote.
Proponents expect their proposal to qualify for the November ballot and urged city officials to not fast-track its shelter approvals before voters have their say. The city's economic development director laid out an approval time line at the council's Housing and Economic Development Committee meeting last week that officials say could render the referendum moot.
City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said the city has yet to formulate a written legal opinion about how a potential referendum would impact the city project, but councilors expect a formal analysis to be presented next month.
Snyder believes the shelter project should continue on its normal course because it's unclear whether the referendum will qualify for the ballot and, if so, whether voters will approve it. She noted that replacing the Oxford Street Shelter has been a longstanding goal of the council and work should continue.
"I don't think there should be any slowing down or speeding up, regardless of whose process it is," Snyder said. "It has to be a fair process. I think we have to stay with the process and have it play out legitimately."
Two city attorneys have said at recent meetings that the retroactivity clause in the referendum may not apply to the city's proposal because state law limits the reach of retroactivity in municipal land use matters. Projects can't be prevented from moving forward if they have full approvals in hand at least 45 days before a new ordinance or regulation takes effect.
Ordinances in Portland typically become effective 30 days after passage. If the referendum qualifies for the Nov. 2 ballot and is approved by voters, the new limits would take effect in early December. That means the city's project would need to be fully approved by mid-October to move forward regardless of the referendum outcome.
"If the project was to receive full approvals 45 days before (early December) then it could move forward," city attorney Michael Goldman told the Housing and Economic Development Committee last week. "It's a very tight time frame."
Christine Grimando, the city's planning and urban development director, said the city's shelter proposal would require both a major site plan application and conditional use from the planning board. She said the time line for project approvals depends on both the complexity of the project, completeness of the application and the planning board schedule.
"Many major site plans take at least a few months, and most have at least one workshop before the public hearing, but there's a big range," Grimando said.
Kevin Bunker, a principal at the Developers Collaborative, which is lined up to build the shelter and lease it back to the city, estimates that it would take three to four months to receive approvals, once the application is filed. Bunker said he's done about 14 projects, ranging from acquisitions to both minor and major developments.
"This one of course is politically very complex but physically it is not as complex as some projects, which can take six to eight months to approve. Very simple ones might only take one meeting," Bunker said in an email. "This one is somewhere in between, so I think three to four months is a pretty good estimate."
If that timeline holds, the application would need to be submitted by mid-June, or July.
The council has yet to enter into formal agreements with Developers Collaborative regarding the construction and lease. But Bunker said he may submit his site plan application before those agreements are finalized.
Bunker said he only recently learned about the interplay between state law and the referendum and that his time line was developed before the issue was raised.
"When we submitted our package to the city, we were focused on compressing the schedule as much as possible simply to get the building done so folks will not have to spend another winter outdoors," he said. "One of the ideas we suggested in order to compress the schedule was to apply before the lease was fully finalized."
Referendum proponents, who plan to organize under the name Smaller Shelters for Portland, said they already have collected nearly 1,000 of the 1,500 signatures needed to place their proposal on the November ballot. Those signatures would need to be filed at City Hall by July 2 to qualify for the November ballot, but the measure could advance to a subsequent election if submitted between July 3 and 12, according to city officials.
The proposed referendum would limit the size of new emergency shelters to 50 people, but the cap would not apply to existing shelters or new shelters serving families or victims of domestic violence. It would require those shelters be open 24 hours a day and provide services either in person or through video conferencing. And it also would remove a requirement that shelters be built within a half mile of a public bus route, among other changes.
Stephanie Neuts, one of the leaders of the referendum effort, said the group has over 30 volunteers collecting signatures. She is confident the referendum will qualify for the ballot and "the voters will reject the megashelter approach in favor of smaller shelters in November."
The city has been working on plans to replace the aging and cramped Oxford Street Shelter for the last five years or so — an effort that has stirred controversy at nearly every turn. Officials say the shelter that serves single adults out of a converted three-story apartment building and garage in Bayside is outdated and unsafe for both staff and clients. The shelter normally holds 154 people, who sleep on floor mats, but that capacity has been cut in half during the coronavirus pandemic.
The new homeless services center, proposed at 654 Riverside St., would have about 200 raised beds with an onsite soup kitchen, medical clinic, social services and locker room — services that are either not offered or limited at the Oxford Street Shelter.
The Developers Collaborative's proposal is estimated to cost $19.23 million and would include a bus shelter on Riverside Street, a raised garden and benches, as well as a grassy courtyard with a stage and reading tree. The proposal also includes several other suggestions, among them a possible outdoor sleeping pavilion, and identifies a portion of the property where a future transitional housing project could be built.
The council's Housing and Economic Development Committee recommended selecting the Developers Collaborative over two other proposals, one of which was not responsive to the city's request.