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

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Coming Soon: The New Portland Public Library on Monument Square

Portland's main library will be shutting down for most of March as the building gears up for a year-long period of construction and renovation. When the first phase is finished in 2010, Monument Square will look something like the rendering above.

I've written before about how much I love our library building - a beautiful (and Portland's only) example of international modernism.

The current library facade. Photo by Flickr user selfnoise.
It's got a sleek granite façade, and as an egalitarian public building it delivers a good deal of activity and civic nobility to Monument Square, the heart of our city. Almost two years ago, Portland voters agreed that the building was worth preserving as a library, by rejecting a proposal to move the library to smaller quarters in the former Public Market building.

How we use libraries has changed dramatically since the library was built in 1979, and the renovation will do a great deal to bring the building up to date.

New floorplans will give more space for Internet browsing and kids' and teens' services. The Rines Auditorium will be relocated towards the front of the building, which will allow direct access to the room later in the evenings when the rest of the library is closed.

The biggest improvement, though, comes from enclosing the empty space in the front of the building, where there are currently only skylights under an overhang of the building. This inactive space is the biggest shortcoming of the existing building: walking past the skylights along Congress Street, you look through the windows and see only a ceiling mural in the childrens' library. It feels more like a suburban office park than the central square of the city, and it has a deadening effect on the street.

The renovations will enclose the empty space with glass and turn it into a cafe, where library users can work in a sun-filled space with big windows onto the Square, and where the library will be able to make a little bit of money by selling coffee. Inside and out, the front of the building will feel a lot more lively and welcoming after these renovations.

I have only a couple of minor quibbles with the plans for the front façade. I find it a bit unfortunate that the renovation will mar the building with a "solar chimney" - a tower of glass tacked onto the granite. But it will save the library a lot of money for heating costs, according to architect Scott Simons:
The tall angled glass curtainwall on the front of the library (the uppermost portion) is actually a greenhouse that generates pre-heated air for the mechanical system. The sun penetrates the single glazing, heats up the air and stone behind it, then rises naturally to the top of the chimney where it is drawn into the air mixing chamber in the mechanical system as heated fresh air... The glass curtainwall greenhouse saves enough energy to pay for itself in less than ten years.
It might not look great, but the energy savings is a noble goal, and with luck the glass can come down sometime in the future when even better heating options are available and the city has better appreciation for the existing building's elegant modernism.

I'm also uncertain about the new façade's other prominent element, an outdoor video screen above the main entrance, facing Monument Square. On the one hand, I've always been a fan of the library's kiosks that line the entrance ramp, where any individual or organization can put up a display for all to see, and the outdoor screen gives that egalitarian concept an even grander stage outdoors on Monument Square. It also would be neat to have for civic celebrations - this outdoor screen would have been fantastic to have on Election Night, or when the Red Sox won the World Series. But, on the other hand, I'm concerned that a big outdoor video screen could be pretty tacky most of the time - more Times Square than Monument Square.

Still, these are minor complaints, and I'm put at ease by the fact that they're by no means permanent alterations to a beautiful building. All in all, I'm really looking forward to the library's rebirth, and a newly revitalized Monument Square.

Bikes for the unemployed

So your office shut down and you're out of work. No worries - just trade in the abandoned cubicles and phone system for a nice new bike.

Via Craigslist:

Trade Office stuff for track/fixie - $1 (Portland)

I have a nice digital telephone system that could serve an office or business. Also have about 25 cubibles.

I would like a 55cm or around there in size fixed gear bike. Bianchi Pista / Masi speciale/ langster

let me know.

UPDATE: MDOT releases final stimulus project list; no funding for Bayside bridge

The Portland Press Herald today ran a story on MDOT's final draft of stimulus-funded highway projects for the state. There are some key differences between this list of projects and the previous list, whose projects were far more expensive than the amount that Maine will receive through the stimulus's transportation grants.

Here's the list of projects in full. In summary, Maine will receive $130 million in "highway" funds (that includes funds for sidewalks and bike lanes). Of that, $14 million will rebuild or repair bridges; $51 million will repave interstate highways; $61 million will repave other state roads and highways.

The stimulus bill allocated 3% of highway funds to the "Transportation Enhancements" program, which pays for traffic calming, sidewalks, trails, and other projects to promote sustainable transportation. MDOT is budgeting $2 million for stormwater pollution mitigation projects in the Long Creek watershed of South Portland, where acres of parking lots and arterials dump oil-soaked runoff into the state's most polluted waterway. And another $2 million will pay for sidewalks in Dover-Foxcroft and Ellsworth.

There will be no funds for the Bayside Trail or the Hodder's Folly Overpass - apparently MDOT had serious concerns that the latter project, which hasn't even been designed yet, won't satisfy the "ready to build within 120 days" requirement. Portland will receive funds for a new traffic light and better crosswalks on Auburn Street at the Lyseth Moore school driveway, but that's about all we'll get.

The final MDOT list also includes $13.25 million for new transit vehicles: 13 city buses, 6 small buses or vans for rural transit, and $7.4 million for a new ferry to Vinalhaven. The transit budget is less than 10% of Maine's total stimulus funding, which is ridiculously low and far lower than what other states will receive. This is because other states have their acts together with better and more comprehensive transit plans and more "ready to build" projects. MDOT's failure is Maine's loss and Massachusetts's gain.

Funding for rail projects - particularly the $35 million project to extend the Downeaster to Brunswick - will come from separate programs.

The other projects that I'd written about yesterday
but aren't on this official stimulus list are still in the pipeline to get built; they'll just be funded through conventional gas tax revenues, which means we shouldn't hold our breaths for them.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What's in the stimulus for Portland

Above: the planned parkland along the Bayside Promenade Trail. The park and trail, which will begin construction within the next three months, are eligible for a $2 million investment from federal stimulus funds. That would be enough to landscape the park, but not enough to build an ill-advised overpass over Franklin Street (see below).

The Maine Department of Transportation, an agency that expects to lose $3 billion of taxpayer money in the next ten years from maintaining its unsustainably overbuilt highway network, has been granted a temporary reprieve from the federal stimulus bill, which will deliver $162 million for transportation projects. Most of the money will go towards fixing crumbling roads that MDOT can't afford to fix itself - but the good news is that the stimulus won't be building any new roads or highways in Maine.

The better news is that some of that money will be used to build new sidewalks and buy new buses, ferries, and vanpool vehicles for the entire state.

Here are some of the eligible transit projects on the table:

  • $18.2 million for new buses, paratransit vans, and ferries to replace aging vehicles and support expanded transit services;
  • $960,000 for new vanpool vehicles operating under the GoMaine program;
  • $5 million for track maintenance and rehabilitation on state-owned railroad lines;
  • $35 million to rehabilitate rails north of Portland and expand The Downeaster service to downtown Freeport and Brunswick.
Notably, MDOT dropped the ball on repairing Portland's hundreds of sidewalks and sidewalk ramps that are in dire need of repair. Augusta will now need to pay for those urgent projects out of its own pocket, using Maine's own gas tax revenues.

Instead, the big-ticket bike/ped item for Portland is a $2 million budget for the Bayside Promenade Trail (pictured above), which is supposed to begin construction this spring but has been lagging in its overly-ambitious fundraising efforts under the helm of the Trust for Public Land.

Potential funders have every right to be skeptical, as the Trust for Public Land's Sam Hodder has been single-handedly lobbying hard for an extremely expensive pedestrian overpass over Franklin Arterial. I've long been a supporter of the Trust for Public Land, but Hodder's bullheaded and unilateral cheerleading for the overpass idea is not welcome. Most pedestrian overpasses are magnets for crime and promote reckless driving on the expressways beneath, and an overpass over Franklin Street would feed into MDOT's desire to make Franklin Street look more like Boston's Storrow Drive.

Thankfully, the $2 million stimulus allocation for the Bayside Promenade isn't nearly enough money to build a pedestrian overpass over Franklin. Houston, Texas (where I lived in 2005 and where I still sporadically follow bike/ped issues) is planning two bike/ped bridges over its own freeways and bayous, both of which are expected to cost much more than $2 million. One, the proposed "Tolerance Bridge," would span a bayou that's about as wide as Franklin Street at a cost of $7 million. A second overpass with more basic architecture would span a four-lane expressway in Memorial Park to the tune of $4 million.

The Franklin overpass isn't ready to build by any means - it hasn't even been designed yet. But unless the Trust for Public Land is planning to build a hideously cheap pile of concrete and chain-link fencing, like the unused overpass that disgraces the Westbrook Arterial, there's no way they'll be able to afford to build an overpass here. Building an overpass at any price would only happen at the expense of the planned parkland that's supposed to be landscaped this summer. I can't believe that the Trust for Public Land and Portland Trails would be willing to make such an egregious mistake as that.

Other noteworthy local projects due to receive stimulus funds:
  • The intersection of Riverside Street and Warren Avenue near the Westbrook-Portland boundary will be rebuilt with signalized crosswalks and sidewalks, plus traffic-calming measures
  • Replacement of the railroad overpass on Veranda Street, including both sidewalks
  • Traffic calming and new crosswalks at the driveway of Lyseth Moore School on Auburn Street
  • Traffic calming around the UNE campus in Biddeford, including sidewalks and crosswalks on Route 9 (Pool Street)
  • Construction of new segments of the "Eastern Trail" recreation path through York County
  • New sidewalks in Gorham village, Wells Village (along Route 109/Sanford Road) and Bangor's Capehart neighborhood.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reckless driving may be legal, but that doesn't make it OK

The current speed limit on Franklin Arterial, Marginal Way, and a number of other in-town Portland streets is 35 miles per hour:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Action Item: 816 Sidewalk Ramps, miles of sidewalks

Last year, Portland's bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee, of which I am the vice-chair, proposed a list of the city's top five infrastructure priorities to improve conditions for human-powered mobility through the city. We made this list at the request of the city's Department of Public Services, in order to prioritize Portland's funding requests from the state and PACTS, the regional transportation planning organization.

In order of urgency, they were:

  1. Peninsula sidewalks should meet ADA standards - with wheelchair-friendly curb cuts, sidewalks in good repair, and no gaps in the sidewalk network.
  2. Implementing the Franklin Street Plan.
  3. Tukey's Bridge: better access from adjacent neighborhoods & improved capacity for bikes and pedestrians.
  4. Connecting the north end of Franklin and East Bayside with the Back Cove Trail, via the Exit 7 underpass.
  5. Improved trail, sidewalk, and transit connections in the vicinity of Exit 5, especially to and from the Portland Transportation Center.

These priorities were endorsed by the City Council's Transportation Committee, and subsequently reinforced in a number of public meetings for the Peninsula Transit Study and Portland Trails' Active Transportation Project. The first item - filling in the gaps in the peninsula's sidewalks - began with a peninsula-wide inventory over the course of last summer. That inventory has produced a report, now in draft form, that identifies all of the gaps in the city.

Here's a map from that report of the city's crosswalk ramps (the ramps where sidewalks slope down to cross a street at a crosswalk). Green and blue dots denote ramps in "excellent" and "good" condition, respectively. Yellow denotes a ramp in "poor" condition, red denotes a "failed" ramp, and black dots indicate no ramp at all (the city's 816 crosswalk ramps under the latter three categories are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act). Click the image to enlarge it:

Outrageously, you'll notice a lot of black, red, and yellow dots in neighborhoods around hospitals - especially along State St. in front of Mercy, in the area around Bramhall Square, and just downhill from Maine Med in the St. John/Valley neighborhood - and in low-income neighborhoods where there's either public senior housing or social service agencies for the disabled - in the West End near Harbor Terrace, for instance, or in large swathes of Bayside.

Here's a similarly color-coded map of the city's sidewalks:

Again, similar patterns, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Both maps also show a number of problem areas even in the city's busiest pedestrian neighborhoods and streets - including the length of Congress Street, and the Old Port.

Here's the good news: now that we know where the problems are, we can begin to solve them. Barry Dikeman, an engineer who's recently moved to Portland and joined the bike/ped group, writes that "a crew could fix all of the ramps in a season... Typically the ramps cost between $1000 - $2000 each to install with little to no burden on City engineering staff as there exists boilerplate ADA accepted ramp fixes that address just about every possible scenario."

With 816 ramps and miles of sidewalk in need of serious repair or construction, the bill will be big. Luckily, Washington is rumored to be sending some cash our way for this kind of project...

Monday, February 9, 2009

What's in the stimulus?

The Transport Politic blog has a good side-by-side comparison of the House and Senate versions of the stimulus bill. Maine's Senator Collins deserves credit for maintaining a respectable level of transit funding in her efforts to limit the bill's total costs; and with $250 million available for state railroad projects, the odds look good for work to start on the Downeaster's service expansion to Brunswick this summer.

I'd also like to credit our new Congressional Representative Chellie Pingree, who, as a member of the Rules Committee, worked to get the transit-friendly Nadler amendement into the stimulus bill. Rep. Pingree, an islander who's used to relying on the state ferry service, seems interested in doing more work to support transit in Maine, and I'm glad to have her working for us in Washington.

The two chambers will now negotiate a compromise between these two proposals, and then, hopefully, the growing hordes of the unemployed can get to work again.