john tabor city council

John Tabor

2021 Portsmouth City Council Candidate Questionnaire

Portsmouth’s municipal election is Tuesday, Nov. 2. Below, incumbent City Councilor John Tabor responds to’s candidate questionnaire.

Age: 66

Occupation: Retired president of SMG (Seacoast Media Group), city councilor

Civic experience: St. John’s Church (past board chair), Prescott Park Arts Festival (board chair), Chamber of Commerce (past board chair), Portsmouth Listens (co-chair). City government: McIntyre Subcommittee, Ethics Committee (chair), Energy Advisory Committee (chair), Clipper Strong Committee.

Years living in Portsmouth: 34

1) Do you think the city should impose any new measures or mandates related to the COVID-19 pandemic at this time?

Not present given the data. but we should continue to make vaccinations available in Market Square. Vaccinations are the best way to beat COVID.

2) Do you think the Prescott Park Master Plan should be updated in any way? Specifically, do you think the stage should be temporary or permanent? Covered or uncovered?

The “temporary stage” was a compromise at a time PPAF crowds and events were growing rapidly. It was a way to resolve tensions between neighbors and the festival. Since then, we’ve had three seasons with a binding license agreement that controls show times, crowd sizes and impact on the neighborhood. It’s a good agreement that has all but eliminated complaints.

However, the political compromise of a temporary stage lives on and is now colliding with reality. City staff and consultants say it is difficult if not impossible to build a temporary stage that can be covered (for safety during rain) and withstand 70 mph winds per state fire code. The only option is to essentially put up and take down a permanent stage with beefy steel poles and concrete footings. It would cost more than a permanent stage and cranes it uses will be hard on the park. It’s unappealing to donors who might privately fund it.

By putting a permanent stage in the row of buildings with the Sheafe warehouse as is currently proposed, there would be minimal loss of views, and superstructure could be taken down during the winter. PPAF use would be restricted to June to Labor Day per the agreement. The rest of the time it could be used for other public purposes – the Festival of Trees at Christmas, children’s events, Halloween Parade awards, etc. If properly designed, it could be an enhancement to the park year round, as such purpose-built buildings are in other cities.

3) How do you feel about the current pace of development in Portsmouth?

While a strong commercial tax base helps us (and generates nearly $40 million of our $94 million tax levy, paying a much higher portion of schools and services than neighboring towns), residents in all neighborhoods where I’ve gone door-to-door feel Portsmouth is overdeveloped with hotels and luxury condos. We should reconsider zoning that allows indiscriminate big-box, large footprint buildings and hotels. A successful model to follow is the West End/Hannaford area: a mix of low rise and high rise, diverse businesses that are neighborhood-based, walkable, with good design. Key to this was zoning that ruled out big boxes, encouraged mixed use, but allowed height and density in some areas where it fit.

We can create similar zoning that creates vibrant neighborhoods and are very different from the monoliths of the North End. I also would like to consider an Architectural Review Board to ensure developers don’t take the cheapest and most unattractive options, especially outside the historic district or in form-based zoning areas.

All these zoning elements should flow from a new Master Plan for the city, which we do next term. I favor a very broad and deep public input process to get a vision that maintains and enhances our city’s character. We should use Portsmouth Listens study circles: invite every resident to participate, empower up to 300 residents in small groups as we did in 2003, dialoguing over multiple nights together to find a common vision for the city. The process allows the best ideas to come to the top and successfully guided policy and land use from 2005-2015.

4) What, if anything, do you think should be done to increase access to affordable housing?

We have to be bold or we will be only a community for the very rich. We are a very desirable place to live and “work from home” has allowed many high earners to live here, creating high rents and home prices.

First, we should continue zoning that allows quality new housing consistent with city character. Eric Chinburg, who developed the Frank Jones buildings, said new zoning in 2016 greatly facilitated his project, which created apartments that started at $1,450 per month including utilities. Second, we need to define what is affordable housing as a percent of median income (who is eligible) and build policy around that. Third, partner with the Portsmouth Housing Authority to find places in the city we can create affordable housing. The purchase of the Community Campus gives the city a lot of new land in its portfolio. Also, although we can’t mandate a percentage of affordable units to a developer in New Hampshire, we can use incentives in creative ways to get more affordable units. Lastly, a housing trust fund could enable us to “close the gap” between what an eligible family can pay and market rates based on need.

5) What changes, if any, should be made to the city’s bike lanes?

I voted to keep the Middle Street Bike lanes and worked to get a compromise in the form of a citizen study committee to find a long-term solution. The protected bike lane design we had took up 19 feet of the road, putting parked cars far out in the road. There are alternatives (“raised bike lanes”) inside the curb that would take less real estate so Middle could return to being the multi-modal artery the Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan envisioned. I have discussed this with staff and fellow councilors and believe it holds promise.

6) Regarding the McIntyre building, what do you feel is the best path forward to avoid litigation and get the project done?

Our council inherited a contract to build a project the public did not want because it was too big and dense. Turning this around was the hard but right thing to do because it defines that part of the city for 100 years, and a lot of work has happened since 2020. We involved the public and they came up with a new vision. People said they wanted a vibrant place to gather, return of the Post Office, indoor public space for winter, green space, an observation deck. All these public benefits are included in the design done for us by the Principle Group. The best path forward is to continue to work with National Park Service to get this plan approved, and then resolve our differences with Redgate Kane. Like any good developer, I believe Redgate Kane would rather build a good project than sue.

7) What additional measures do you think the city should take to slow climate change and prepare for its impacts?

Our city is facing cost and risk from sea level rise and increasing stormwater volumes. We will spend $3 million to raise Prescott Park seven feet to mitigate rising river levels! We need to build policy around our Sustainability Committee’s Drawdown principles reducing municipal energy consumption, encouraging locally based green energy in homes and businesses, and looking at electric shuttle vans and innovative modes of transportation to serve our tourist downtown, and more.

Our biggest opportunity is to aggregate residential electricity demand to buy green power, giving residents the chance and the choice to power their homes with less carbon under NH RSA 53-E. Councilor Lazenby and I initiated our Energy Advisory Committee which I chair, and my goal is to have Portsmouth join Hanover, Dover, Lebanon and other towns and cities forming “Community Power” entities to give their residents a menu of electricity supply options that are 254%, 50% or 100% renewable, while still being distributed and billed by Eversource. Imagine turning on your dryer and knowing your electricity is carbon neutral!

8) Do you support the idea of seasonal road closures and/or barriers to accommodate outdoor dining at restaurants — even after the pandemic has (hopefully) subsided?

Outdoor dining has been a good thing and it should continue, but as COVID wanes, we should have a sensible fee structure for use of our streets and sidewalks. It should not continue to be free.

9) What do you think the council can do to cultivate an environment of respect and collaboration and minimize hostility in local government?

First, councilors should not micromanage city staff. In our city manager form of government the council deals only with the manager.

Second, we should deliberate as much as possible in public, with motions and material available for public inspection before each meeting. Excessive use of non-public session allows “back channels” of information to develop, and some councilors feel left out.

Third, any vital information that bears on any decision we make should be shared with all councilors in as open and transparent a way as possible.

Fourth, councilors need to listen to allies in the community who support them, but not be beholden to them when the greater good of the city requires compromise. This is especially true if a block of councilors run together. If they are beholden to political allies, the council risks becoming a government of the few, by the few and for the few.

10) Aside from the issues already raised in this questionnaire, please outline ONE other priority you would address as a city councilor over the next two years.

The 2025-2035 master plan is our chance to get citizens involved and make us a model small city. I would like my children to return to Portsmouth to raise their families. I want them to live in a city with historic character, thriving arts and culture, a decreasing carbon footprint, innovative new modes of transportation and housing they can afford.

BONUS: What are you going to be for Halloween?

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To see other candidates’ responses, click here.