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

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Portland International Neighborhood

Another noteworthy idea from last week's League of Young Voters debate came from Captain Bill Linnell, an impressive candidate for the City Council's third district seat.

In response to a question about the Portland International Jetport's expansion plans, Mr. Linnell, who lives in the Stroudwater neighborhood adjacent to the airport, suggested that we look into moving regional passenger flight operations to the newly-vacated Brunswick Naval Air Station (BNAS).

The more I think about this idea, the more I like it. The Portland-Westbrook Municipal (PWM) master plan is proposing a $245 million expansion - roughly a 1/4 billion dollar project. Much of the cost would come from expanded runways and parking garages, both of which are challenging and costly to build because PWM has very limited real estate to work with.

Brunswick, on the other hand, already has a longer runway, as well as existing support facilities and plenty of space for new terminal buildings. Our politicians have promised that passenger rail service will be extended within walking distance of the site in the next couple of years, and Brunswick is more centrally-located and convenient for airport passengers from the midcoast, central Maine, and Lewiston-Auburn. It's slightly less convenient for those of us in greater Portland and York County, but most of us are taking the bus or train to Boston when we fly anyhow.

But the most appealing part of the idea would be the redevelopment opportunities that would open up when we streamline our aviation infrastructure. PWM occupies an amount of land that is roughly equivalent to two Baysides - and it's well positioned between the employment centers around outer Congress, the Maine Mall, and downtown Portland. Instead of being something we spend $245 million on, this land could support thousands of taxpaying jobs and households.

Without runways blocking the way, we could build new road and transit connections to relieve automobile congestion in places like Libbytown and Cash Corner. Existing runways and taxiways could easily be adapted into new roads, and new development in the area would easily pay the cost of new and renovated infrastructure: new bridges that connect to I-295 and Thompson's Point, and new parks to rehabilitate the long-suffering wetlands around Long Creek and the Fore River.

It's been done before: during the 1990s, the city of Denver abandoned the old Stapleton airport, which the growing city had crowded out of expanding, in order to build a completely new facility further out. Today, Stapleton is a new urban neighborhood - or rather, several neighborhoods - with thousands of new homes and businesses, as well as huge new parks, all connected with a walkable street grid.

It did take Denver over 20 years to do it. Let's start talking about moving PWM to BNAS now.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Could Wi-Fi Enliven Portland's Streets and Public Spaces?

Last night's League of Young Voters debate among City Council candidates included a question about introducing citywide wi-fi to Portland. The candidates' responses to this particular question were largely uninspiring, but it got me thinking. For one thing, downtown Portland has the right scale and geography to introduce a large "cloud" of wireless access: while citywide networks in places like Los Angeles have proven to be expensive flops, citywide wireless projects in other towns the size of Portland have been very successful.

For another thing, it would be a great economic development tool. I have a friend (Paul Burdick) who recently moved to Peaks Island without ever having set foot in Maine previously. He's the Chief Technology Officer of a growing web-software development company, and he can live anywhere he wants. Paul chose Maine because of our "quality of place," and we're glad to have him here. Portland could attract a lot more young web entrepreneurs like him if we had a comprehensive wi-fi network.

Finally, and most relevant to the topics of this blog, wi-fi networks could be a great way to enliven our public spaces. More people would have a reason to lounge around places like Monument Square or Post Office Park: our streets and public squares could become outdoor offices and meeting spaces. And urban web developers could create new ways for us to interact with our city - perhaps by syndicating downtown events, performances, and shows as a new RSS feed for Portland's outdoor network, or by publishing buses' GPS and schedule data for commuters.

For more ideas, look into this archived article from Salon.com:
Urban renewal, the wireless way

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ironic Quote of the Day

The OP Maine State Pier proposal version 1.0. Released 0 days after City deadline.

The OP MSP proposal v. 2.0. Released 3 weeks after City deadline. The completely new project seems seemly to Councilor Jill Duson, who voices no objections.

The OP MSP Proposal v. 3.0. Released 4 months after City deadline, after the conclusion of all public meetings save one. The completely new project is nevertheless completely in order with Councilor Jill Duson.

Councilor Jill Duson, on another Councilor's suggestion that the City delay negotiations with Ocean Properties until the developers can submit new proposals that include the adjacent Ocean Gateway terminal:

"This is unseemly. This is a completely new project. It is completely out of order.”

Source: Portland Press Herald, Councilors Deadlock, 9/18/07.


Last night was decision night for the Maine State Pier and the results were ... Inconclusive. That's right, a 4-4 deadlock on both proposals. ( Councilor Jim Cohen recused himself due to a potential conflict of interest.) Juicy details here and here.

By the way, when I was there watching the action last night I saw an Opie supporter wearing a polo shirt (they sure looove their polo shirts) emblazoned with the slogan "Consider it Done." I bet that guy felt pretty low after the vote was taken. He and all his Opie buddies could use some cheering up. Maybe someone could print them up some polo shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Consider it D'oh!"

Friday, September 7, 2007

Carsharing skips over Portland, arrives in Lewiston

Zipcar, a car-sharing company that liberates thousands of city-dwellers nationwide from the hassles of car ownership, has brought two shared cars to the Bates College campus in Lewiston. Anyone in the neighborhood will now be able to reserve the cars at an hourly rate: gas and insurance are all included, and there's a $35 annual membership fee.

For anyone who doesn't need a car every day, carsharing can save hundreds to thousands of dollars compared to the alternative of storing and maintaining your own automobile. It makes sense for most college students, of which Lewiston has 1800 at Bates. But it also makes sense for hundreds of island residents in Portland, and for the thousands of people who struggle with parking in the Portland peninsula's close-in, walkable neighborhoods, and for the thousands of additional students who attend USM.

Why did Zipcar pass over Portland to open its first carsharing franchise in Lewiston? I suspect that someone at Bates took the initiative to invite the company and plunk down the necessary investment, and now I'm envious. I want a Zipcar, or a Flexcar, or a home-grown PortCar here in my neighborhood.

When I'd first arrived back in Portland and was temping, I'd given some serious thought to starting up our own carsharing service here. Real work intervened, and I didn't have any money to start a business anyhow. But I do have more savings now, and I'm more convinced than ever that a carsharing business can thrive here, as well as in a number of coastal communities that serve car-free island residents. Anyone want to pool resources and catch us up with cosmopolitan Lewiston?

Lewiston Sun-Journal: Hourly Car Rental Arrives in Lewiston

ZipCar: Bates

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Bizzarro Portland

In Bizarro Portland, an independent Commission isolated from political influences handles the redevelopment of city land and urban renewal projects. Recently, Bizarro Portland undertook plans to develop a formerly industrial property on Bizarro Portland's waterfront. Instead of letting backroom negotiations with political cronies determine the future of the site, Bizarro Portland instead began a six-month public process to determine a general "framework plan," which offered five key principles of redevelopment: providing open space, respecting the site's history, defining a community focal point, strengthening connections, and embracing sustainability.

After the Bizarro Portland City Council approved the framework plan, then, the independent Bizarro Portland Development Commission began to look for developers for the site. They published a snazzy web site that described the public's goals and advertised the opportunity nationally, and after six months, they had received not a measly two, but nine responses from firms all over the country. Now, three finalists have been chosen to move ahead and assemble detailed proposals - for which they'll have six to eight months to assemble. Following that, the citizens of Bizarro Portland will have another chance to review the proposals. Furthermore, the independent Commission and the citizens of Bizarro Portland will recognize any developer who tries to radically change their development proposal at this late stage in the game as thoroughly unreliable and unprofessional.

Strangest of all, Bizarro Portland actually exists - it's Oregon's largest city. And this waterfront redevelopment project exists, too: it's called Centennial Mills.

Like our Maine State Pier, Centennial Mills is an underutilized part of the other Portland's working waterfront, adjacent to downtown and a former industrial area that's quickly redeveloping into condos and office buildigns. But there's also these differences: Centennial Mills is on a middling river, not the Maine coast, and its existing structures are in terrible shape. Despite these disadvantages, Centennial Mills attracted the interest of NINE national development firms, whereas the Maine State Pier only brought in two proposals from Maine and New Hampshire.

The other Portland only went out in search of developers AFTER citizens crafted a plan that clearly outlined their own goals for the site. Those goals, and the development opportunity, were then published nationwide and on this sophisticated web site. When the three finalists come back with detailed proposals next year, the public will know exactly how the review process will proceed, and any developer that tries to pull a Baldacci by rearranging their proposal in the middle of the game will be laughed out of town.

This way of doing things, with rigorous and clearly-defined public processes and independent redevelopment commissions, requires more up-front planning resources. But it also avoids costly lawsuits later on, planning staff don't have to play catch-up with new procedures determined on the fly by corrupt councilors, and the clarity of the process attracts more legitimate developers - and more development - because everyone knows exactly what to expect.

This method of governing urban redevelopment also happens to have produced dozens of award-winning projects and a city renowned the world over for its livability. Unfortunately, our Portland seems dead-set on following the Newark, NJ model... and the results promise to be ugly.

Read more about the Centennial Mills redevelopment here and here.