A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Bigger bumpouts aren't always better

The first phase of construction to narrow down the failed Spring Street urban-renewal scheme is just about complete, and for the most part, it's an improvement: the ugly median barrier is gone, there are fewer lanes of traffic, sidewalks are wider, and bike lanes are coming soon.

But even with the improvements, Spring Street still feels like a forlorn, too-wide speedway through empty parking lots. The hope is that some of those parking lots will soon transform into buildings, and then Spring Street might feel more lively. But for the time being, it's still a sad place.

The weirdest part of the new street is probably at the western end of the project, where the 1970s urban renewal project ended. There, the old street quickly bottlenecked down from 4 lanes east of State to two lanes a block to the west. The traffic engineers' plan for eliminating that bottleneck in the new plan has been causing some controversy. Here's a cyclists'-eye view of what it looks like:

Photo by Steven Scharf

 That's Portland's newest, biggest sidewalk bump-out, sitting right in the middle of what clearly used to be the historic path of the old Spring Street.

Now, as much as I like bump-outs, this design is stupid.

On the north (right, in the photo above) side of this corner, there's a clearly-defined street wall defined by the Little Tap House building, mature street trees, and other historic buildings a little further on up the street. And on the south side, there's a city parking lot – a remnant scar of Spring Street's urban renewal demolitions and a prime opportunity for a new building that could activate the corner.

But for some reason, the engineers designed the new Spring Street to avoid the historic corridor. Virtually of the site's contexts – the buildings, the trees, the streetlamps – tell motorists and cyclists to "stay right", but the paint on the pavement says, "swerve left, then right."

This, unsurprisingly, is confusing people. The Press Herald even got photographs of a driver rolling their car right over the new bump-out. To the driver's credit, this is exactly what the street's visual cues suggest you should do. But if you're a traffic engineer looking at a blueprint of the intersection, you don't see those visual cues, or the intersection's historic context.

Portland Press Herald graphic

Here's another problem with the bump-out: the reason it's so huge - two lanes wide! - is because on the eastern side of the intersection, in front of the Portland Museum of Art, the new Spring Street incomprehensibly bloats to 3 lanes, including an idiotic double-right-turn lane. While the rest of Spring Street got a road diet, this particular section senselessly got a widening.

The sudden bloat in turn lanes is obviously confusing to drivers – the driver who got caught cruising over the bump-out is trying to drive straight on Spring from one of the new right-turn-only lanes. The intersection worked just fine when there were only two westbound lanes there, though. Getting rid one of the three westbound lanes there and restoring the former layout would be an easy short-term fix.

And here's my final beef with the bump-out. The city owns a parking lot on the south western side of Spring Street. Greater Portland Landmarks owns the building on the southeastern side of Spring Street. Both of those corners are prime opportunities to activate a new Spring Street with attractive new buildings that match the context of the historic neighborhood and honors the historic street wall.

If we were willing to shrink the bump-out AND sacrifice one of the new right-turn-only lanes, we could actually get more pedestrian space overall, and get a more sensible intersection, and put more city-owned real estate to work to create new housing. How about it, City Hall?

Friday, October 30, 2015

Suburban streets get complete

Two large-scale construction projects have delivered impressive "complete streets" transformations along parts of Route 1 in South Portland and Falmouth this summer.

To the south, a sewer upgrade project along Main Street in Thornton Heights slimmed down a four-lane road into a two-lane city street in the neighborhood's center, widened sidewalks, and added landscaped curb extensions that will also help filter stormwater before it flows into storm drains. Construction's not quite done, but some of the new sidewalks and curbing have been installed, along with some of the basic stormwater filtration gardens:

Thornton Heights is a classic streetcar suburb, but the neighborhood has had a hard half-century since it became the dumping ground for traffic from a nearby Maine Turnpike spur road.

Unfortunately, the new Main Street is still only an island of walkability – it remains cut off from surrounding neighborhoods, thanks to that previously-mentioned Turnpike stump at the neighborhood's southern edge and the inhospitable stretch of Route 1 that leads through the ugly Cash Corner intersection.

Also discouragingly, South Portland city councilors last year rejected a proposal to allow more walkable and transit-oriented zoning in the neighborhood. So, even with a more urban, walkable street, it's questionable whether neighborhood-oriented small businesses will follow, given that the status quo zoning favors auto-oriented strip mall development.

On the other end of Route 1, in Falmouth, they've just finished a very similar street project for that town's main drag. This one also includes new, wide sidewalks, lots of new street trees, lighting, bike lanes and several landscaped medians for safer crosswalks:

Unlike Thornton Heights, Route 1 in Falmouth is mostly surrounded by strip malls and parking lots – it's hard to tell there whether you're in Maine or in suburban Texas, so the town's nice new street feels pretty lonely.

But Falmouth is one step ahead of South Portland in one important respect: it's enacted some progressive zoning to encourage new walkable development along their new main street. That's been slow to come so far, but the new sidewalks and street trees should help encourage the hoped-for investment.

Monday, September 28, 2015

UCarShare is growing and Portland's parking reforms are working

It's hard to believe, but UhaulCarShare has been operating in Portland for over six years now.

They started with four cars parked near Monument Square and the ferry terminal. Here's a screenshot of their website in 2009:

As of this fall, they've doubled the local fleet to 8 cars and expanded into South Portland with a car parked at the Southern Maine Community College campus. Here's their new coverage map:

A lot of UhaulCarShare's success here comes from a helpful new reform of parking rules in the city's zoning requirements. For the last few years now, city planners have allowed a reduction in developers' expensive parking-construction mandates if the developers agree to sponsor a carsharing vehicle on-site.

Several new apartment buildings have taken advantage of this incentive, most recently Avesta Housing's 409 Cumberland Avenue apartment block, which built only 18 basement parking spaces for its 57 new apartment units and sponsored a new UhaulCarShare vehicle to be parked on-site. This arrangement benefits everyone: reduced construction costs for the developers, reduced housing costs and more mobility options for residents, and a more convenient carsharing network for neighbors.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Portland Street pilot bike lane

The city has repaved Portland Street and re-striped its wide expanse of pavement to give us a short stretch of bike lanes between Deering Oaks and Preble Street:

(an aside: have you ever noticed the terminating vista of the City Hall clocktower at the end of this street? Too bad the Libra Foundation's huge white elephant parking garage squats in front of it to block most of the view. Also too bad the public market that that garage was supposed to support failed after just a few years in business – probably unrelated to the massive, expensive garage it was hitched to, right?)

At a recent meeting, I heard that these bike lanes are being tested on an interim basis while the city gears up for a more complete reconstruction of Portland Street in the next couple of years. So, if you like what you see here, consider sending a message of thanks to your local city councilor and the city manager.

And also consider asking the city to go even further with traffic-calming on Portland Street. Removing some of the street's excessive pavement now could pay off with thousands of dollars' worth in annual maintenance savings in the years to come:

  • Reducing the street width and adding trees at intersections with landscaped curb extensions
  • Replacing a handful of parking spaces with stormwater treatment infrastructure (the 'pilot' layout increases on-street parking significantly with angled parking near Preble Street, so some spots could be removed in other locations and still maintain a net gain for automobiles)
  • Narrowing the street and widening sidewalks between Brattle Street and High Street, where Portland Street had formerly ballooned to a four-lane roadway

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

City-owned garages ask Portland taxpayers for a $865,000 subsidy

The city has just posted the city manager's proposed capital improvements program for 2016 and beyond.

This is the budget document that typically allocates local funds for traffic calming and bike/ped infrastructure – but there's not much of that in this year's proposal.

The one line-item for bike or pedestrian infrastructure is $500,000 for basic sidewalk maintenance and repair – which is in line with what's been spent in recent years.

Why should Portland taxpayers pay for Falmouth's motor vehicle storage?

However, the rough draft of the budget does include $865,000 just for parking garage maintenance and equipment.

So, in a city that proclaims that it supports cleaner air, safer streets, and progressive causes, we've got a budget that proposes to spend more money on taxpayer-subsidized parking than on bike, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure combined.

Now, other, privately-owned parking garages manage to cover their maintenance and equipment costs without taxpayer bailouts. Furthermore, I see quite a few expensive late-model cars going into and coming out of our city-owned garages. It seems to me that the city's parking division ought to get its own customers to pay the costs of the parking that they use, instead of asking Portland taxpayers to pay for wealthy motorists' parking spots.

A safer Franklin Street – in 2024

Also take a look at page 29 of the document, where you'll find the city's longer-range finance strategy for the tackling its most visionary plans:

School construction projects will monopolize most of the city's capital budget for the next few years. That means that the city's big livable streets projects are likely to be postponed far into the future due to lack of money.

Implementing the "Transforming Forest Avenue" plan might happen, finally, in 2021. The new Franklin Street will have to wait 'til fiscal year 2024. Converting State and High Streets back to 2-way traffic: 2025.

Take a look for yourself – it's a good introduction to understanding why our City Councilors are interested in increasing the city's tax base.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"Keep Portland Livable" is making Portland's gentrification problem worse

A couple weeks ago, we learned that Peter Monro and Tim Paradis, the two men behind “Keep Portland Livable,” had been working closely with the developers of the proposed Midtown development in Bayside, and will now support a revised proposal with a large reduction in housing.

I'd been reserving judgement on this turn of events until I'd had a chance to see the revised plans. Now that those have been posted on the city's website, I'm pretty disappointed. The new project is, however, entirely consistent with the privileged mindset of the well-to-do homeowners who bankrolled "Keep Portland Livable." Here are some of its problems:

They subtracted lots of the housing, but kept most of the parking.
The most credible complaints from “Keep Portland Livable” concerned the massive parking garage being proposed. But, in the updated version that bears the Paradis/Monro seal of approval, the massive garage is still there, and it actually grew an additional level.

In fact, it now would stand as the tallest, most prominent edifice in the revised proposal (pictured at right). How's that for symbolism?

The new Paradis/Monro project dedicates a much higher proportion of real estate to car storage than to people. The original plan was to have about 1.3 parking spaces per apartment. But under the new plan, each apartment will have 1.8 parking spots. That’ll help “keep it livable” for wealthier residents who want to bring multiple cars with them into the heart of the city, but it's going to make the city's streets less livable for everyone else.

It won't be more affordable; in fact, it will likely be more expensive.
The revised proposal makes no provisions for more-affordable housing — indeed, with hundreds of fewer apartments available in this new proposal, the developers will need to charge substantially higher rents for each unit in order to satisfy their investors and break even on construction costs. And speaking of rent inflation...

The truncated apartment buildings in the revised proposal (bottom, above) will have fewer apartments, and therefore they'll only be "livable" to half as many families.
It's a lost opportunity to address Portland's housing shortage.
The original proposal would have had up to 850 apartments. The revised project, with only 440 apartments, gives 410 fewer households the opportunity to live within short walking distance of three supermarkets, a dozen bus routes, downtown retail services and thousands of jobs.

Hundreds of new families are moving to Portland each year. Many are moving from places like Los Angeles or Brooklyn out of a desire to live in an attractive city near the ocean; many others are moving from rural areas out of necessity to live near health care and social services.

How the city makes room for these newcomers is a largely unresolved question.

Now that the "midtown" proposal has been scaled back with 410 fewer homes, it’s not as though 410 apartment-seekers who would have lived in the high rises will simply evaporate into thin air. Instead of occupying a long-vacant lot in Bayside, many of those newcomers will instead take over apartments and homes in established neighborhoods like Parkside, Munjoy Hill, or the West End (where Monro himself settled a few years ago when he arrived here from Massachusetts).

Or, if they don’t take over housing in Portland, perhaps they’ll join the thousands of migrants taking up residence in suburbs like Scarborough and Windham instead, where running even the most basic errands require burnt offerings of fossil fuels.

It's a terrible precedent for civic planning
The original 'midtown' proposal was faithful to the city's "New Vision for Bayside," a 1999 neighborhood plan that explicitly called for high-rise buildings and hundreds of new apartments to be built on this site to make Bayside feel like an extension of downtown and to help reduce suburban sprawl in rural communities outside of Portland. It was a good plan, and these developers collaborated closely with city planners and neighborhood leaders as their plans coalesced over a period of several years.

The opinions of two wealthy dudes aren't supposed to trump the city's long-standing economic development and housing policies. But the "Keep Portland Livable" guys have shown us a new, unwelcome truth for our income-stratified city: that those with the privilege to buy their own lawyers, public relations flacks, and lots of Facebook advertising can assert a de facto veto over the city's progressive housing goals and neighborhood-based planning process.

No urban plan will ever satisfy everyone, but the city's planning process is intended to balance and prioritize countervailing concerns (for instance, the overwhelming need for new housing, versus a few residents' aesthetic preferences for horizontally-oriented groundscrapers).

If the city's wealthy citizens are going to veto any new housing proposal that they don't like, then the city will quickly become inhospitable to everyone but the wealthy.

Urban design needs to be less elitist
I've heard from several people in the past few weeks who have seen the new plan, observed its weaknesses and wryly concluded that Paradis and Monro have "sold out" their values by agreeing to this compromise.

Saying that they've “sold out” misjudges the men’s intentions, though. Peter Monro and Tim Paradis are wealthy homeowners (Monro would really like to tell you about his recent two-month Spanish vacation), whose West End and Old Port property puts them in Portland’s top stratum of real estate wealth.

The city's housing shortage simply isn't a problem for these guys. And so, in the absence of real problems, it makes a certain amount of sense that they'd get so wrapped up in a first-world problem like a moderately tall apartment complex being built in the middle of the city.

Still, struggling to maintain some degree of egalitarianism in our cities against the desires of an increasingly powerful and wealthy 1% will be the defining challenge of urban planning in the next few decades. These guys are on the wrong side of that struggle. As Victor Gruen was to freeways, so Keep Portland Livable is to gentrification.

The challenge for the next generation – my generation – is to make sure that our revitalized cities will still make room for the diversity of people who would like to live in them. Keep Portland Livable's midtown intervention – like the destructive urban renewal of the last century – is an instructive example of what not to do.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Pavement polluters would pay for more sustainable infrastructure under proposed "stormwater charge"

During a 2-inch rainstorm, the parking lots and big-box rooftops of the "Pine Tree Shopping Center" and Quirk car dealership (pictured at right) dump about 1,500,000 gallons of oil-slicked runoff pollution into Portland's sewers, which proceed to overflow into the headwaters of the Fore River.

In a city that prizes its working waterfront and its locally-caught fish and lobster, this particular form of parking pollution is a big problem. The good news is that the city has committed to a $170 million upgrade of its infrastructure to handle this pollution. Even better: for the first time ever, parking lot owners, who are responsible for a substantial amount of the pollution, might actually foot a fair share of the bill.

Right now, sewers get paid for through our water bills; parking lot owners don't pay anything, even though their asphalt sends hundreds of millions of gallons of gasoline-slicked sewage into Casco Bay each year.

But for over a year now, the city's been holding public hearings on its proposed new "stormwater charge," which is its preferred way of paying for federally-mandated sewer upgrades for Clean Water Act compliance. The city's proposal would ask property-owners to pay fees in proportion to the amount of "impermeable surface" – rooftops and pavement – that they own.

This could be a significant step towards reducing the city's environmentally-destructive subsidies for motorists. Right now, parking lot owners are getting a free pass on the pollution they cause, but with the proposed stormwater charge, parking lot owners would be forced to pay to clean up Casco Bay.

In the short term, the fee will provide more funding for "green infrastructure" projects, such as traffic-calming sidewalk extensions that incorporate stormwater filtration gardens (like the one pictured at left, which was installed on Commercial Street earlier this year). And over the longer term, the new tax on pavement will help encourage more property owners to convert low-value parking lots to more productive, more urban uses – and encourage more motorists to leave the car at home.

The idea's got a lot of momentum behind it, but he city's also hearing a lot of opposition to this idea.  Anyone who wants to weigh in with a voice of support would help.

To learn more:

And to thank a city councilor for supporting this concept: