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

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:
http://www.portlandmaine.gov/1331/Stormwater-Service-Charge

And to thank a city councilor for supporting this concept:
http://www.portlandmaine.gov/132/City-Council

Monday, September 29, 2014

Traffic engineers *still* want to widen Franklin Street

At left: Gorrill-Palmer Engineers' proposal for an 8-lane Franklin Street, blocking the Bayside Trail crossing between Marginal Way and Somerset Street.

This Wednesday, Oct. 1, will be the second public workshop for the Franklin Street redesign study. It starts at 5:30 p.m. in the main library's Rines Auditorium (on the basement level).

There's some good stuff being planned, but the team needs to be challenged – forcefully – on their proposal for the northernmost section near Marginal Way, pictured at left. 
 
Traffic engineers from Gorrill-Palmer – the same guys who proposed turning Franklin into a full-on freeway ten years ago – seem to have missed the long discussions about how this study's purpose was to make Franklin Street safer and friendlier to foot traffic. 
 
Instead, they've sketched out plans to widen Franklin from 6 lanes to 8 lanes north of Somerset Street. 
 
The proposal would make the intersection of Franklin and Marginal Way one of the most massive intersections in the greater Portland region – almost as big as the junction of Route 1 and Gorham Road at the center of sprawl-choked Scarborough.

The traffic engineers claim that extra lanes are needed to accommodate their forecast of 8% more cars by 2030. In other words, motorists will get more space to accellerate to freeway speeds, and pedestrians will get longer crosswalks and more opportunities to get maimed by motorists.

This section of Franklin would be the first section to be reconstructed (in 2016), so it's important to get it right – or at the very least, not make it any worse than it is today.

If you're coming to Wednesday's workshop, a good question to ask might be why we need 33% more lanes built in 2016 in order to accommodate science-fictional traffic that won't exist for another 15 years (if ever)?

Another good question to ask is whether the traffic engineers would be willing to film their children, or elderly parents, spend a weekday rush hour crossing this street on their own.


Monday, September 22, 2014

New St. Lawrence Theater offers to pay for better bus service

The new performance hall for the St. Lawrence Theater on the top of Munjoy Hill is going up for its planning board review this month, and the proposal includes a nice treat for Portland's bus riders: in order to entice more of its audience to ride transit to the facility (which, in an unusually progressive fashion, will be built without any on-site parking), the nonprofit is offering to pay to increase frequency and extend service hours on METRO's Route 1, which runs up and down Congress Street from one end of the peninsula to the other.


Currently, METRO's Route 1 runs roughly every half-hour from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., with a couple of additional runs until 10 p.m.

If the new St. Lawrence Arts venue is approved, the bus would run every 20 minutes, until 11 p.m., six days a week. They're also proposing to rebrand Route 1 as the "Art Line," a reference to its route through the heart of downtown's arts district.

The funding required for the additional service – $70,000 a year – would come from a surcharge in ticket fees at the new venue.  They're also planning other goodies, like abundant bike parking at the front door and discounts for cyclists. You can read the full "transportation demand management plan" here. 

Obviously, the enhanced bus service wouldn't just benefit theater patrons at St. Lawrence Arts. It would also benefit late-night hospital workers at Mercy and Maine Medical Center, on the other end of the line, plus dozens of restaurants and other arts venues downtown.

But no good idea goes unpunished: a group of wealthy neighbors calling themselves "Concerned Citizens of Munjoy Hill" is working hard to sink the proposal, or at least force St. Lawrence Arts to build an exorbitantly expensive parking garage.

So, if you'd rather see more sustainable transportation on Munjoy Hill instead of yet more parking, let the planning board know: email your comments to Nell Donaldson, HCD@portlandmaine.gov.

Monday, September 15, 2014

10 bike parking spots inside 1 former car parking spot

This is cool: Portland's first on-street bike parking corral, located in front of Crema coffee shop and Rosemont Market on Commercial Street (a location that had suffered for lack of bike racks ever since the building was renovated a few years ago). It's also conveniently close to the end of the Eastern Prom trail.

The city has funds and equipment for one more of these, but has yet to locate a spot for it. Any local businesses interested in trading attracting lots of cyclists in exchange for a single car parking spot should get in touch with Bruce Hyman, the city's bike and pedestrian planner in the city's planning office (874-8719).

Monday, August 4, 2014

After over 16 years, Portland gets a sidewalk to its bus and train station

Back in the late 1990s, Concord Trailways moved its bus terminal out of Bayside to more spacious quarters on the edge of the central city, on Thompson's Point. That gave the bus company lots of room to grow, from a handful of daily roundtrips to Boston to the near-hourly, round-the-clock service we enjoy today. But there was one problem: there were no sidewalks on any of the streets leading to the bus station.

The problem got worse about 10 years ago, when the Amtrak Downeaster started running to the same station. Car-free arrivals from Boston and other points south found themselves stranded at the edge of a huge parking lot and a tangle of hostile freeway ramps.

It didn't feel like arriving in Portland – it felt like arriving in the strip malls of Falmouth, Scarborough, or Freeport.

In truth, though. it's only a 30 minute walk from the Portland Transportation Center to Longfellow Square, in the middle of the city. Back in 2008, the Portland Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee designated this area one of the city's top priorities for bike and pedestrian infrastructure improvements – due largely to its significance as a destination for Portland's car-free travelers.

This summer, thanks to a grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, street improvements in the area have finally created a few passable walking and biking routes to the city's busiest transportation hub. I took a bike ride down there this weekend, and here are some shots of the area's newly completed streets.

This new crosswalk across Fore River Parkway connects to Frederic Street, a dead-end for cars that will now serve as a nice bike/ped shortcut to and from Congress Street (there had been an informal goat path through a fence here before, but the new one is accessible to bikes and wheelchairs).


The new Thompson's Point Road now boasts sidewalks. It was also widened, from 2 to 3 lanes, but the center lane will be a "reversible" lane to be used only when events are happening at a still-unbuilt Thompson's Point arena.


Sewall Street (below) also received some new sidewalks, and remains cut off from Thompson's Point for motorized traffic. Sewall is the first built link in a planned and funded "neighborhood byway" connection that will run on quiet neighborhood streets from Thompson's Point to Deering Center, 1.5 miles north of here. 


Part of the new neighborhood byway includes safer crossings of the three busy streets that lie between Thompson's Point and Deering Center – Congress, Brighton, and Woodford. Here's what the corner of Congress and Sewall looked like a few weeks ago:


...and here's the same scene from this past weekend. Sewall Street has been narrowed down and the crosswalks have been improved with ADA-accessible ramps.



Finally, Fore River Parkway has gained a new separated shared-use path that runs from Thompson's Point Road to Congress Street. I understand that the bike lane on Park Avenue, which currently peters out into a freeway on-ramp, will be extended to flow into this new bike path. 


Fore River Parkway still lacks a sidewalk on its western shoulder – building one there will require the roadway to sacrifice a lane for car traffic, so we'll still have one good battle to fight. Still, it's a good start.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Maine DOT goofs up, but publicity, bike/ped activism is making it right

Here's the good news: the Maine DOT is planning routine maintenance of the well-used Casco Bay Bridge sidewalk this summer, in a project starting next week. So kudos to them for keeping important infrastructure, used by hundreds of people every day, in good working condition.

Here's the bad news, though: our highway engineers in Augusta forgot that people actually rely on the sidewalk that they're repairing, and neglected to make any credible detour plans for the project.

As told in greater detail in yesterday's Portland Press Herald story, the state's transportation agency hadn't made any plans to create a temporary walkway as a detour on the main route between Portladn and South Portland for the 3-week period of construction. Instead, the construction plan apparently expected pedestrians, joggers, and wheelchair users to make their way across the bridge on the roadway's bike lanes – in close proximity to cars and trucks going 40 miles-per-hour.

When Portland's Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee learned of this plan at our regular monthly meeting earlier this week — just one week before construction began — we immediately reached out to the City of South Portland's bike and pedestrian advocates, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, and Portland Trails. The next day, the Press Herald story linked above ran on the front page with a dramatic photo — attracting a lot more attention to the problem.

Today, though, we're hearing that the DOT is floating new plans to keep most of the bridge's sidewalk open, with a much shorter sidewalk detour on the "lift span" part of the drawbridge where the actual work is taking place.

The whole episode has been embarrassing for the Maine DOT — and rightfully so. Just last month the agency was just boasting that it had adopted a "complete streets" policy, but this gaffe makes it clear that its old, motorists-first mentality persists in the bureaucracy.

Still, thanks to rapid and coordinated responses from Portland and South Portland advocates, the upcoming bridge project won't be nearly as disruptive or dangerous as it might have been.

Photo at left by John Brooking. 
These signs, as seen on July 17, are meant to notify pedestrians of the proposed bridge closure — but they're located far away from the sidewalk in the roadway's median, and have been overlooked by most of the bridge's pedestrian users.