M. Christine “Chris” Dwyer
Occupation: Co-owner, RMC Research. which does research and policy consultation
Years living in Portsmouth: 30 years in Portsmouth, 37 years on the Seacoast
Prior public service experience: Ten years on Portsmouth City Council (committees include Planning Board, Workforce Housing, Legislative Committee, Joint Building Committee for Middle School, Building Re-Use, Sagamore Planning, Fire Study Committee, Police Study Committee, Prescott Park Working Group); past member, Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Committee on Arts and Culture; first president of Art-Speak; seven years as chair of N.H. State Council on the Arts; two terms on Municipal Association Board
How often do you walk into downtown or use public transportation? What can the city do to encourage more pedestrian traffic and public transit use?
We frequently park at some distance and walk into town — probably several times per week. Occasionally we use the parking shuttle, which has proven efficient and reliable. While there aren’t any bus routes that I can use to get to work, I frequently take the bus when I need to go to Boston. The most cost-effective changes we can make as a city to reduce car use are probably about encouraging biking — putting in bike lanes and bike parking facilities. Public bus transportation is a regional initiative and the city needs to continue to work with and encourage other Seacoast communities to build out COAST, paying for our share through parking revenues.
How would you address growth and development throughout Portsmouth?
We are slowly growing our residential population to return to the size that Portsmouth was during the 1980s, prior to the closure of Pease — closer to 25,000 than 20,000. I think we need to encourage growth in varied housing stock throughout the city to accommodate the growing workforce — not in large residential developments, but in a distributed way throughout the city and especially along our corridors. In terms of commercial development, we need to pay attention to the types of zoning changes that will reduce sprawl, such as the recently enacted gateway zoning in the Frank Jones area. As corridors like Lafayette Road, the Route 1 bypass and Woodbury Avenue are redeveloped, we have the chance through zoning to achieve better mixed use development and correct the types of development mistakes that were made in the 1970s and 1980s.
What can the city do to restore public confidence in the police department and the police commission?
I think it is important to separate public confidence in general policing from confidence in the commission and police department management. I believe the public does feel safe and protected and has confidence in the general work of our police. In the past I have advocated for two changes that I still believe are necessary to improve the management of the police department. First, we do not need a police commission that separates the department’s operations from the rest of city operations. Our current charter limits any oversight by the city council and city manager — the commission is given all that authority. I believe the citizens of Portsmouth deserve the opportunity to vote on the ballot about whether we want to continue down that path; unfortunately the majority of current city councilors opposed giving the public that opportunity. Second, when top positions in the department have opened (i.e., when (former) chief (Michael) Magnant and (former) deputy (chief Len) DiSesa retired) I advocated (as a lone voice) for doing a broad search outside the department. I think it is imperative to do so now to bring new perspectives into the department.
How can Portsmouth encourage the development of more affordable and workforce housing?
The city’s role in encouraging development of housing is primarily through crafting zoning regulations to allow increased density in exchange for agreements about rental/purchase price of housing units. The city has in place in some areas planned unit development zoning and gateway zoning that allow for greater density in a few parts of the city; more areas could be added. The city’s land use boards also have a role in encouraging the application of housing regulations and not denying new approaches to density. The other major function the city can take on is education — the bully pulpit that is required to advocate for varied housing options, and so far we have not been very successful in doing so. Repeatedly, neighbors and others, including those in subsidized housing, have spoken against workforce housing when we have had real projects come forward before our land use boards. In the City of the Open Door, we’ve come to the point where residents say they don’t want workforce housing in their neighborhoods or they don’t want workers’ children living next to them. So we have a lot of education ahead of us to help the people of our city understand that affordable workforce housing is for the teachers, policeman, retail and restaurant workers who work on behalf of all of us. So, supportive talk about workforce housing is not enough; we need the basis in zoning, education for land use boards, and advocates who are willing to take the right path when decisions count.
What role should the council have in working with the Prescott Park Arts Festival to address residents’ complaints about noise?
The council’s role is developing the long-term agreement that governs the rental/use of Prescott Park — that is, negotiating the ground rules under which the Festival operates. Elements of an agreement that are concerned with noise include placement of the stage and speakers, time length and schedule of performances, and use of professional sound crews. Within an agreement, city management can monitor and implement the terms. In developing an agreement, the council will be balancing many different interests, and undoubtedly will not be able to satisfy all the individual complainants.
How can Portsmouth respond and adapt to the impacts of climate change?
Our staff and land use boards have already been addressing some aspects of the effects of climate change through planning ahead for different scenarios that we may face, including severe weather events. One example is understanding the likely impact that the rise of sea levels will have on low-lying areas (and) adjusting zoning/building regulations accordingly. Another is changing the thresholds that govern responses to various amounts of rain and run-off on site, knowing that the 100-year storm is now going to occur more frequently. Yet another is stepping up our water conservation efforts, especially measures associated with lower priority water uses such as outdoor watering. The city is working with Eversource to bury electrical wires in some parts of downtown. Public buildings are equipped with generators; we need to be prepared to shelter citizens during extended power outages. These are just a few of the practical examples that represent strategies where the city is leading preventive efforts.
What is one recent change for the better in the city, and one you hope to champion as a councilor?
I was very involved in all aspects of the African Burying Ground and think that it has proven already to be a very positive development for the city. The site has many layers of meaning for residents and visitors and brings together history and art in a place for contemplation and gathering. It’s the best of what a public space can be and shows how public art can be deeply meaningful. I’ve been an advocate for public space and public art for many years and I think this site finally helps many more people to understand the value. I certainly hope t