By Carol McCracken (Post # 1,261)
When Jeff Levine started work this July as Director of the Planning & Urban Development Department, he was charged with making the building permit process more timely and predictable he told mhn.com late last week in his city hall office. “And technology is the way to correct these short term goals,” he said. Levine filled the position vacated when attorney Penny St. Louis left to pursue her legal career in another venue.
For years prior to Levine’s hiring, complaints about the slowness of the permitting process had led to comments that Portland is “anti-business.” The slowness of the process was frustrating for those who have developments on their drawing boards – just waiting for the city to move on it. A few years ago a report was comissioned by the city and one of the conclusions in it was that Portland performed slower than its counterparts.
Several months prior to Levine’s employment, the city hired a consultant, Jared Clark, to meet with Department staff and recommend improvements to the process that’s in place. As a result, one recommendation already in place is the e Plan. It provides all city employees involved an opportunity to review the proposed project on-line – in a parallel fashion rather than in a linear way – which can be very slow and time consuming for all. According to Levine, this is in place and only fine-tuning remains to be done to make the system work efficiently. Since Levine’s employment, Professor Yuseung Kim at the Muskie Institute for Policy Study, USM,has been researching three comparable size communities in New England to determine their turnaround time in issuing permits. The communities are Portsmouth, NH; Burlington, VT; and Lowell, MA. His report is expected to be available the end of this month.
Beside Levine’s short-term goals outlined above, are his long-term goals. One study that has just been completed is the tranformation of Forest Avenue into more of a boulevard (similar to the Eastern Promenade on the Hill) A second transformation study is for the Spring Street area. Recently, the city announced that the India Street 15-block neighborhood has been selected to take part in an innovative plannning project designed to make the community more prosperous and enjoyable for residents. There will be a day-long neighborhood workshop held early this year during which data about the neighborhood and its capacity for future growth and change will be the focus. It is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods and until recently has been ignored partly because of the poor economy. The India Street Neighborhood Association, founded by Joe Malone, who owns properties in the area, has been instrumental in this renewed interest in the area. Hugh Nazor, area resident, has been an effective spokesperson for the newly created Association.
“It’s easy to get wrapped up in the minutae of the day,” said the low-key Levine. “But you can’t forget the long-term goals of which there are many. You have to have a passion for city planning to be effective and willing to think long-term. Portland has tremendous planning opportunities – many of them are being taken advantage of already.” Levine clearly relishes the challenges of this position to come.
According to Mayor Michael Brennan, the changes will be rolled out in a formal announcement in February.
Formerly, Levine was the head of the planning department for the City of Brookline, MA., which is primarily an affluent residential area. He and his wife have two young children. Levine has other family in the area. That includes his older brother Mike, founder of Acorn Productions, for whom he is often mistaken.