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Name: John Tabor
Occupation: Retired publisher/president, Seacoast Media Group (Jan. 1, 2018)
Years living in Portsmouth: 32
Public service experience: Jim Noucas and I co-chair Portsmouth Listens, which has worked in alliance with the city to empanel citizens to give thoughtful input on city issues, including the 2005 and 2015 city master plans, West End Zoning, the FY12 budget, housing, city sustainability, and transportation.
I’ve also served as board chair of the Chamber and the United Way annual campaign, and on the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Committee on Youth. I currently chair St. John’s Church board and the Prescott Park Arts Festival.
Q1: What can the city do to increase its supply of affordable housing?
If we zone development thoughtfully and protect neighborhoods, I believe we can combine well-crafted ordinances with market forces to increase inventory and stabilize prices.
Between 2010 and 2017, the supply of apartments increased by only 279 — fewer than 40 per year — less than 1 percent. For the rental market to work, the city needs at least 1 percent a year or more (about 100 units). Between 2017-2020, Portsmouth will add 255 units, or 128 a year, according to figures from the planning department. If condos are included, growth could reach 459 or 230 a year. Some say the new units will not be affordable, but what can happen is that renters in “B” level housing move up to the new “A” grade units, creating availability at the lower end of the price scale. Policies to help this along:
- Continue to use density bonuses for affordable housing. This added 27 affordable units to the 260 in the Frank Jones project in the West End.
- Find pockets to encourage density without sacrificing character. The West End form-based zoning is a good example of a mix of low-rise along Islington Street and high-rise near the old Frank Jones buildings. While protecting the historic streetscape, this zoning brought into being Eric Chinburg’s project in the old Frank Jones brewery — a new urban center with restaurants and apartments starting around $1,450 per month, utilities included.
- Follow through on Portsmouth Housing Authority’s project of 68 units on Court Street, priced at $900-$1,200 a month.
- Find creative ways to repurpose retail and strip-mall space using public/private partnerships and planned unit zoning. As retail changes (and it will!), old strip malls can become villages with apartments, dining, and shopping. Rebecca Perkins has done good work on this.
We have to get developers to share costs for road widening, stop lights, or easements to connect housing to main arteries and spare neighborhoods in between (viz the project on the North Mill Pond should funnel traffic to Maplewood Avenue).
Q2: Are there specific areas in the city budget where you think spending cuts can be made? Are there specific areas where you think spending should be increased?
Prior to 2017, city spending grew at 3.7 percent and the tax burden grew by 1.5 percent. We benefitted from development that added to the tax base, and good control of costs. Now we are trending at 4 percent spending growth and 2.8 percent increases in the tax burden. Payroll is growing at 5 percent. So residents are rightly concerned their taxes are going up.
It’s also all relative — if we lived in Dover, the average homeowner would pay $8,000 more. Dover lacks our commercial property base.
For our tax dollar, we get great services compared to any other city in New Hampshire our size. We are generally very efficient — only two full-time health inspectors oversee all our restaurants! Our police and fire response is topnotch, and infrastructure is constantly being improved.
But I would like to see us manage back to the early spending pace so spending is not going up faster than the incomes of people who pay for it. So I would look at ways to find efficiencies (such as benchmarking us to other N.H. cities, innovative ways to deliver services learned from other cities, reviewing programs of work that have outlived their usefulness, etc.). I know from operating a 200-employee business that payroll must be managed, and there are always ways to be more efficient while valuing dedicated employees. I would want the city manager to involve employees, department heads, and unions in that effort as a policy priority to protect taxpayers.
In addition to managing costs, we should look at other revenue sources. We should continue lobbying in Concord for enabling legislation for a local $2/room hotel tax so tourism pays more of city costs. Hampton Beach is an ally in this effort.
Q3: Do you support a citywide ban on single-use disposables such as plastic bags, plastic straws, and Styrofoam containers?
I support banning Styrofoam and straws on city property such as Prescott Park and at city events. I’m not sure we can legally enforce a ban on plastic bags in the city. They are bad for the environment. But many people who shop on foot depend on them. So I think we need to figure out how to make it work for all ages and income levels.
Q4: Regarding the McIntyre redevelopment project:
A) Do you support the Redgate/Kane plan?
B) Do you think the Council should step back and consider other plans, such as the one put forth by Bill Binnie?
I favored the Binnie plan because it gave half of the site back to us for public use as a park and indoor public market, and it protects Bow Street’s views and streetscapes. This is, after all, public land. I favored a “bake off” between Binnie and Redgate-Kane — how could the city lose? But in my door-to-door conversations, people question whether/how to start over. Also, the current council has committed us to Redgate-Kane in writing, and Binnie was not a bidder in the process. So we would need a majority of the council willing to start over and a way to ethically and legally wind down the first process and start a second one for Redgate-Kane and Binnie to compete. This election will be an interesting referendum on whether to start over or not. If the new council sticks with Redgate-Kane, I would be a voice for the project to be deferential to the low rooflines and scale of historic Penhallow and Bow streets, and preserve open views as much as possible. The finances are public, and at an 18-percent-plus return, I believe the developer can give back some building height to preserve our downtown’s historic character. The latest 3D drawings are here and integrated into the city’s GIS here.
A shadow study was submitted as part of the HDC process: see here.
Q5: What can be done to clean up and prevent PFAS contamination and other chemical contaminants on the Seacoast?
As former president of Seacoast Media Group, I am proud of how our local media company told the story of Portsmouth activists like Andrea Amico, and advocated for additional testing for Pease workers, for tighter statewide standards, and a realistic approach by the city to the problem as part of the Coakley Landfill Group. It was good watchdog journalism. We will find more and more PFAS in all Seacoast communities over time, caused by landfills, carwashes, use of sewer sludge as soil, etc. It was used in firefighting foam at Pease, and disposal of those Pease residues at Coakley poses particular problems.
The city should provide remedies in the form of filtration systems or water main extensions for homes impacted by Coakley Landfill (our city is 53 percent of the Coakley Landfill Group, a superfund vehicle for remediation from the 1980s). That remedy is cheap and provably safe at as little as $1,200 per home. A pump-and-treat system would cost more than $20 million, and there’s no certainty it will work. We need more certainty based on the ongoing groundwater migration studies and other engineering, and we need a legal way to recover costs from the polluters before embarking on that. It’s likely that New Hampshire will sue the chemical companies as Minnesota did after imposing stricter PFAS standards. Minnesota won a $730 million settlement.
Q6: Do you feel that development in Portsmouth — particularly of luxury condos, hotels, and other large-scale buildings — should be curtailed?
In my door-to-door conversations, this is the number one issue on voters’ minds. There was a time the city needed to encourage hotel and condo projects, but now we have plenty of both. Many people feel our historic character and small-city charm have been diminished. My thoughts:
- Development is not all bad. We assess 8,550 parcels in our city and 1,300 or so are commercial — but they pay 44 percent of the tax burden. And these buildings are a boon to our locally owned businesses. But the finished product should enhance, not detract. I favor aggressively protecting the historic downtown, controlling height and mass to keep the scale and beauty of our streetscapes. The Steve McHenry Popovers building that replaced Eagle Photo enhances Congress Street, deferring to the roofline of the North Church and to the character of the buildings around it. We need preservation-minded HDC and other boards that insist projects blend in and enhance in the same way. Our community doesn’t want more low-grade, big-box projects that merely make money off our historic character.
- We can be smart about where to put high-rise buildings like the West End Chinburg apartments, and not only create housing for younger people, but revitalize urban centers outside of the downtown. The 2015 Master plan envisions more projects like that on the Route 1 South corridor, which I favor.
- When I go door to door, residents say they feel downtown projects don’t pay their fair share. However, the city does revalue commercial properties annually just like residential. Thanks to the real-estate lobby in Concord, though, commercial properties do not have to respond to city requests for income and cash flow, which support a fair assessment of total building value. I would support continued efforts in Concord to require commercial owners to provide this. As for operating costs like police, fire, water, etc., Newburyport produces a one-page summary of tax benefit and added service cost for any new project. We should do the same in an open, transparent way that citizens can see to be sure residential taxpayers aren’t being tapped for “corporate welfare.”
Q7: What are your feelings on the idea of building a permanent covered stage in Prescott Park for festival events?
The Prescott Park Master Plan, done in 2017, clearly states based on public input from hundreds of people that the arts are a vital part of the park, and the city should build a new stage. As chairman of the arts festival board, I have worked on negotiating a commitment from the city that a future stage be covered. Whether the stage is temporary or permanent, a cover is essential to be sure concerts (and performers!) are safe from rainouts. Also, we have now had two years of operations within a city agreement limiting the number of shows, hours, and noise levels. Neighborhood complaints have dropped to almost nothing. PPAF’s impact on the neighborhood is really governed by the city agreement now, not the presence or absence of a stage. Because of this, I favor the city doing a life-cycle costing of all stage options, and determining what is the safest, most cost-efficient stage for the long term.
Q8: Should the city add more bike lanes and/or take other measures to improve bicycle safety and/or reduce motor-vehicle traffic downtown?
As far back as 2004, Portsmouth Listens study circles, involving nearly 300 residents in a vision of Portsmouth, embraced the idea of “a walkable, bikeable” city. That input to the city’s 2005 Master Plan led in part to a citywide pedestrian/bike master plan led by Juliet Walker, who is now our planning director. We are much better for it — we’ve made State Street and the Memorial Bridge area more pedestrian friendly, improved sidewalks throughout the city, and we have bike racks in key locations. We recently added the Middle Street bike lanes (not without controversy). I support continued expansion of bike lanes. I would add from personal experience that my bike has made the downtown convenient and accessible for me. It’s quite nice to “park” right at the door of my destination. While I realize some motorists dislike the bollards and overall appearance of Middle Street, the bike lanes create two modes of transportation on the same street, discourage speeding and keep everyone safe.
But cars still congest our downtown, especially in summer. Ninety-two percent of users of the city’s new mobile parking app are from out of town. I believe we need to find ways to remove more visitor cars from the downtown, with options such as micro transportation and possibly every-few-minutes, small-vehicle shuttles to and from the Foundry Place garage and/or satellite parking. Given the demographics of our parking, I favor raising parking pricing to pay for innovative transportation modes that relieve congestion, but protecting residents with discounts and garages free on Sundays and holidays.
Q9: Are there any significant projects that should be undertaken outside of the downtown area and Islington Street corridor?
The 2005 Master Plan called for “making the rest of Portsmouth as special as downtown,” and the 2015 Master Plan envisioned livable urban centers on the Route 1 South corridor. I support these policies and continued investment in our neighborhoods — new sidewalks, parks, playgrounds, etc. — as we have been doing to enhance their livability.
Q10: At times this summer, there were road closures on Islington Street, Woodbury Avenue (by the traffic circle), Maplewood Avenue, and other roads all at once. Is there a way to reduce the heavy concentration of road work that creates detours and traffic congestion in the summer?
Two streets I have lived on have been torn up and revitalized. For months, it’s like driving on dirt roads, shaking one’s molars on potholes, but when it’s done, it’s a thing of beauty. I like the aggressive pace with which our city DPW rebuilds our infrastructure, taking advantage of low interest rates on bonds and making our city look and drive better.
Q11: What actions should be taken at the city level to address climate change?
We should respond on two fronts: neighborhoods on the water must be made resilient, and we need to encourage and adopt practices that reduce greenhouse gasses.
Sea rise caused by climate change is absolutely real for us. Homes on New Castle Avenue, Marcy and Mechanic streets, and elsewhere in the South End are now in the latest FEMA flood maps. Home sales have been cancelled because of flood insurance, and this will increase over time.
Prescott Park is also threatened and renovation is being done with a 100-year climate change scenario in mind. Other infrastructure like sewer pumping stations, which are near the water, need protection.
I would favor all ways to lower the city government’s carbon footprint, from natural gas or electric vehicles to solar panels, if they do not burden the taxpayers too much. These generally pay for themselves by lowering operating costs. We should be a leader among New Hampshire cities on sustainable practices. If other councilors agreed, I would favor a citywide dialogue on how we can be a more sustainable community. Engagement with citizens on an important topic that impacts all of us creates energy and energy creates action.
Q12: Name one of the biggest challenges and one of the biggest opportunities Portsmouth will face in the next 10 to 20 years.
I couldn’t pick just one…
– Self-driving cars that drop you off and pick you up downtown.
– Attractive indoor and outdoor public gathering space at McIntyre.
– New urban centers outside the downtown with green space, stores, playgrounds.
– A new senior center with fitness center, classes, book groups, crafts, maker space.
– Keeping our quality of life so our downtown is not just a petting zoo for tourists.
– Affordability — We need to make affordable housing for younger residents a policy objective and work toward it year after year.
– Taxes — Many residents are trapped. They can barely afford their tax bills, but if they sell, they can’t buy a house elsewhere in town at today’s prices. We have to be sure commercial development is leveraged wherever possible to ease burdens on the residential taxpayer, and we must manage city cost increases so they don’t rise faster than incomes of the people who pay them.
BONUS: What are you gonna be for Halloween?
The ghost of outgoing city manager John Bohenko.