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

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bayside update

The City Council's Community Development Committee heard from the four developers proposing to build out the city-owned railroad land in Bayside last night. I'd previously written about the proposals here, and here's an updated map showing where the various developers are proposing to put their buildings:

View Larger Map

Common to all of these proposals is a 705 space parking garage that the city has already permitted and towards which the city will commit a $9 million HUD loan. So as in the Eastern Waterfront, another huge garage (in addition to two under construction on Marginal Way right now) will be the first structure to dominate the skyline in this supposed "transit-oriented" neighborhood - at a significant expense to taxpayers. The garage is actually expected to cost $14 million to build, which means that the developers and their predominantly nonprofit tenants will have to pay the $5 million difference themselves. It's a hefty car storage tax that will hamper the desired development and worsen traffic problems, and the City really ought to reduce it or get rid of it altogether.

In no particular order, let's first look at the proposal from MaineHealth (the nonprofit* owner of the Maine Medical Center) and United Way to build a 5 (or 8) story office building on the west side of Chestnut Street and the big garage next door (outlined in yellow in the map above). Here's a very basic conceptual plan they brought to last night's meeting:

The orange hulk on the left is the garage. Hey, Portland City Council: want to make a $5 million donation to United Way? Shrink the size of the garage by 1/3 so it only costs us $9 million to build.

Next up is the 8-story building proposed by The Olympia Companies (outlined in blue). The anchor tenant would be the nonprofit Community Counseling Center. Olympia had submitted three variations on this same building, located on different lots in each proposal, but they seem to be converging on the proposal for an office building on the east side of Chestnut Street, so as not to step on the toes of the MaineHealth and Waterman proposals. Click on the blue marker in the map above for an architectural rendering of this proposal:

Waterman Housing is proposing a mixed-income, nine-story housing building with first-floor offices and retail on the corner of Somerset and the to-be-constructed Pearl Street Extension. It includes a surface parking lot along the planned Bayside Trail, but other than that boner, it looks like a handsome plan, and a bit more interesting than the bland brick boxes going up elsewhere in the neighborhood:

The Olympia Companies also put together this rendering, which shows how the neighborhood might look if the three previous proposals were built in concert:

Finally, Richard Berman of the Developers Collaborative produced this proposal for the entire parcel:

Berman's proposal seemed the most financially viable, since he's offering cash without financing for the land and won't depend on competitive tax credits for the construction. He's also got a pretty solid track record in infill development, having built the Chestnut St. Lofts up the hill from this site and the less-successful Brickhill in South Portland. Unlike most developers of his generation, Berman has a strong personal interest in seeing urban neighborhoods thrive and succeed. This proposal, too, leaves room for collaboration with other developers: it includes a spot on Somerset Street for MaineHealth/United Way's proposed office building, and it would also include the Community Counseling Center as an anchor office tenant.

Another important tenant would be the University of Southern Maine, with a proposed graduate school campus on the east end of the site. The Law School would move in first, on the corner of Chestnut and Somerset Streets, and the Business and Muskie Schools could follow later on the adjacent truck-storage lot between Somerset and Kennebec Streets. Universities are huge generators of economic activity, so establishing a graduate campus here (instead of on the other side of the I-295 moat) could be a huge catalyst for more infill development. Offices for Fairpoint in a flatiron building on Elm Street would round out this proposal.

Having looked these over, I think that the Developers Collaborative proposal is most promising, both because of their solid financial footing and because of their track record as advocates for mixed-use, quality urbanism. But I also like the Waterman proposal, the mixed-use program of which really addresses the themes of the community's Bayside plan. If I had my druthers, I guess I'd have the city sell most of the site to Berman, shrink the parking garage requirement to 450 spaces for the time being (we can build more later, if we really need it, but saddling any of these developers with a $5 million car storage fee, and burdening the nascent neighborhood with hundreds of additional cars, amounts to a really bad idea) and reserve the corner lot of Somerset and Pearl for the good-looking, mixed-income Waterman housing proposal.

The CDC put off its vote to recommend a plan of action to the full City Council until its next meeting in March. Members of this year's Community Development Committee are its chair, Councilor Cheryl Leeman, Councilor John Anton, and Councilor Nick Mavodones.

*Is a health care company really "nonprofit" when our health insurance premiums are paying for the seven-figure salary and chauffeured black SUV of that company's CEO? Good question, but not on topic for this blog, unfortunately.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The new New Vision for Bayside

The PPH reported yesterday on updated proposals for the city-owned former railyards in Bayside, a district that has been targeted for an expansion of Portland's walkable, dense downtown area for almost a decade now (click here for the City's "A New Vision for Bayside" plan, vintage 2000). Here's a map of three of the proposals for which I could figure out detailed location information (click on the map for architectural renderings):

View Larger Map

If you know where I can find pictures or site plans for the other three proposals, please leave a comment.

I need to see more detailed site plans and renderings before I endorse any of these plans myself, but these three look very promising. With six different proposals from four developer teams, and an established citizens' plan already in place, the redevelopment of Bayside promises to be a lot more orderly and successful than last year's Maine State Pier circus. Plus, there aren't any cruise ships, fake tans, or outsized egos this time around. I'm looking forward to seeing this new urban neighborhood get built.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Transit Study public meeting: TONIGHT at 7 PM

After shooting down the highway-expansion bogeys at last month's I-295 and PACTS meetings, it's high time for Portlanders to go on the offense against the hidebound traffic engineers and express our own positive visions for what a 21st-century mobility infrastructure should look like.

Tonight's public forum for the Peninsula Transit study should be a great chance for us to do this. It begins tonight at 7 pm in the newly-built Ocean Gateway terminal on Portland's waterfront (the new construction site where the BIW drydock used to be, one wharf east of the Maine State Pier).

City Councilor Dave Marshall appointed me to be the city's second-district representative for this study. We've only met once so far, but the consultants who are administering this study (Nelson/Nygaard) are really innovative and practical thinkers. I think we have a chance to make some big, positive changes in Portland when the study wraps up and presents its recommendations this summer.

This will be a nice change for local transportation activists: instead of fighting bad ideas, like widening I-295, now we have a chance to articulate our own, positive visions for transportation that's actually affordable, sustainable, and convenient for Portlanders. See you there.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Highways, meet Comeuppance.

Caribeth in the Press Herald.

With gasoline prices steadily rising, greenhouse gas concerns mounting, and infrastructure debt mounting, lousy ideas like the widening of I-295 and the Gorham Bypass are going to seem less and less feasible with every passing year. So last night's PACTS meeting, at which over 100 people from all over southern Maine spoke up against new roads and for new transit services, not only makes it unlikely that PACTS will send these road projects to Washington for funding in 2009's transportation bill - it makes it fairly unlikely that these projects will ever happen at all.

So to everyone who showed up, spoke up, and cheered for transit last night - great job. You may well have saved Maine's lungs from breathing hundreds of tons of new ozone and particulate pollution every summer, and saved the globe's atmosphere from drowning in thousands of tons of additional greenhouse gases every year. That's a substantial environmental victory.

We got some great press, too: in the Press Herald, on WCSH 6, and I also saw reporters from the Forecaster and American Journal. Alec from the League of Young Voters gave a rousing reading of their pro-transit petition and handed over its 450 signatures to PACTS (if you haven't signed it yet, click here).

Our next step will be to take these issues to the Legislature, and work to rebuild the Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority into a sleeker, more innovative PUBLIC agency whose mission is to move people, not just cars. Stay tuned...

Monday, February 11, 2008

We don't want what they're serving

The lead editorial in Saturday's Portland Press Herald, titled "Too Many Cooks in Transportation Planning," criticized Maine's Department of Transportation and the Maine Turnpike Authority for their uncoordinated three-legged race to widen Portland-area highways. The editors note that three separate studies underway - one on the Turnpike, one on I-295, and one on commuter transit - deal with the same problems, don't acknowledge each other's existence, and come to completely different conclusions.

Not only are there too many cooks, but most of the cooks involved are trying to serve us stale ideas that will literally make us, our economy, and our environment ill.

A bureacracy that dates back to 1941, the Turnpike Authority is well past its retirement age.

It's the strongest endorsement I've seen in favor of banishing the Turnpike Authority and gutting MDOT. It also takes the Maine Dept. of Transportation to task for marginalizing transit planning in the expensive failure of their I-295 corridor study.

After three years of thinking about widening I-295, the state is only just now beginning to study transit in the exact same corridor - and even within MDOT's bureaucracy, we get the distinct impression that the intelligent people working to promote transit are consistently short-funded and marginalized by the crushed stone-age Neanderthals in charge.

With a Governor who's supportive of protecting our quality of place and making Maine's government more efficient, it seems awfully unlikely that our transportation agencies can continue tripping over themselves to pave Maine.

Too many cooks in transportation planning: Plans to widen I-295 and the Maine Turnplike should not be made separately.

Portland Press Herald Editorial:
Saturday, February 9, 2008

It's not as if there's been a lack of planning.

Restructuring tolls that would be used to pay for a widening project on the Maine Turnpike is under consideration.

Plans to add lanes and improve entrance and exit ramps on Interstate 295 are on the drawing board.

A $1 million study is under way to probe the feasibility of a commuter rail service in greater Portland.

The problem is more a lack of coordination.

Maine has separate bureaucratic structures that oversee the turnpike and rest of the state's road system. Alternative transportation gets some consideration, but there is little evidence that the entire transportation picture is viewed as a whole.

The decisions made now will have profound effects on the region's residents in the near and distant future, influencing more than commuters' travel time.

They will also affect future land-use and development choices, dictating where southern Maine residents will live and work as well as what they will have to support with taxes.


A proposal by Gov. Baldacci to merge the Department of Transportation with the Maine Turnpike Authority is under review by a working group and will not be part of the current transportation budget. Before the group's work will be completed, several major projects will continue on their own tracks.

The weakness of the current approach is demonstrated by the lack of coordination between the plans for I-295 and the Maine Turnpike.

The turnpike, with its Falmouth spur, provides an efficient bypass around the city of Portland while Interstate 295 cuts the city in half.

While the turnpike collects tolls, I-295 is free. That discourages turnpike use while channeling traffic right through the middle of Portland's downtown.

I-295 has become Maine's busiest highway, and transportation planners say it needs to be widened in order to maintain safety. If approved, this would be the most expensive Maine highway project on the books, dominating federal highway funds.

But plans to change the toll structure on the turnpike, which could have an immediate effect on I-295 in greater Portland, are being conducted in a separate process run by the independent Turnpike Authority.

The Portland Area Regional Transportation Committee will hold a public forum to whittle down its list of high-priority projects on Tuesday at the Clarion Hotel in Portland.

The resulting list will be forwarded to Washington for funding through special appropriations known as earmarks.


Several items on the list are parts of the I-295 widening. The list also includes significant alternative transportation projects, including a $100 million request to buy and improve tracks for commuter rail service and $15 million to purchase ferries, buses and commuter vans. Critics say the earmark funding turns what should be a comprehensive planning exercise into a political one.

The ability to get earmarks is more often a reflection of a member of Congress' clout rather than the relative worth of a project. And money earmarked for a project, can only be used for that project even if the needs of the community change.

In the past, decisions like this would be made by bureaucrats with little public input. But since the passage of the citizen-initiated Sensible Transportation Act in 1991, the Maine public has a chance to weigh in.

The act also requires that the state look at alternatives to road-building, and the DOT has done that, initiating a federally funded commuter rail study that is expected to take two years to complete.

When it's done, Maine would have a chance to compete for funding from a larger pool of federal money to get the project under way.

This represents a balanced approach to transportation planning that recognizes that cars and trucks will be the dominant mode of transportation long into the future.


But it also represents a choice. Investing in a wider, faster I-295 now will likely delay the demand for passenger rail.

As long as highway travel is more convenient than mass transit, it will remain the dominant mode, contributing to sprawl development, greenhouse-gas emissions and dependence on oil.

Since one choice would likely affect the other, it makes sense to complete the transit study and explore changing the toll structure on the turnpike before beginning to widen the highway.

A more comprehensive approach to transportation planning would better serve the greater Portland region.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Petition to the Governor, PACTS, and Maine's Congressional Delegation

It's been up for only a couple of hours, but this petition against expanding I-295 and in favor of spending public money more efficiently on transit has already gained over 100 signatures. Sign it at the League of Young Voters website:

"We, the undersigned, demand that all widening and expansion proposals for I-295 be taken off the table and that immediate priority be, instead, given to enhancing alternative and mass transit options for commuters in our state..."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Portland passes its first bike parking ordinance

The City Council last night passed a new ordinance that will require bicycle racks in proportion to car parking spots in new development projects in the city. Right before the meeting, the City Hall bike rack (right) was full, and several attendees had to bring their rides indoors for lack of adequate parking.

This ordinance is a good first step. Next, the Council should consider letting developers actually replace car parking with bike parking facilities, which are much less expensive for landlords and tenants alike.