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

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


There is a whole bunch of stuff going on this week for planning and smart growth wonks. A partial list:

Tonight at the Root Cellar on Washington Ave., the American Institute of Architects "Sustainable Design Assessment Team" arrives in Portland for a kick-off dinner and community meeting to learn about the East Bayside neighborhood (which is, incidentally, my new home).

This is a pretty exciting project. I'll let the East Bayside Neighborhood Organization explain: "Portland is one of seven communities nationwide to win a competitive grant from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for technical assistance to turn the city's East Bayside neighborhood into a model for a vibrant, sustainable, urban community."

The "technical assistance" is coming from some really bright people, including Neil Takemoto, author of the CoolTown Studios blog, who will be advising on developing the creative economy in the neighborhood, plus Seleta Reynolds, who designed these neat posters, and will be consulting on the neighborhood's bicycle and pedestrian access.

The team will be here for three days. Here's their schedule. Welcome to Portland!

Also tonight, Architalx will kick off its 2010 lecture series with a discussion about well-designed bridges, featuring David Scott of Arup and Spiro Polallis of the Harvard GSD. The idea was to inform and inspire good design for Veterans Bridge, and although that project's lackluster design is mostly a moot point now, we hope that what they say can at least inform the process for replacing the Martin's Point Bridge next year.

Tomorrow evening at One Longfellow will be the screening for "Portland: The Quest for a Livable City" (previously blogged here). I'll be there and participating in the panel discussion after the film.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Portland's arcane parking requirements will tax City Hall $1.2 million AND deny housing for 6

An recent article in the Forecaster outlines plans from Avesta Housing, a non-profit affordable housing development and management company based in Portland, to build 37 new efficiency apartments in downtown Portland, aimed at housing young, middle-class artists and other downtown workers.

The site, at 72 Oak Street, is a five-minute walk from thousands of downtown jobs and retail services, including literally hundreds of small businesses that have popped up along Congress Street's creative economy district. It is also right around the corner from Congress Street, the most transit-served street in Maine, with buses going by every five minutes, on average, sixteen hours a day.

It's a great place to build housing for young, single workers who don't own cars. Avesta intends to build it with $380,000 in City of Portland funds, plus $3.7 million from a statewide affordable housing bond. The rest of the project's $5.9 million price tag would be covered, over time, by rents - between $500 and $750 a month - low enough to be within reach for someone who's working a couple of restaurant jobs at once.

There's only one hitch: Portland's arcane parking requirements, which technically require one parking space for every new apartment built.

Each one of these proposed studio apartments would only be 420 square feet, which isn't much larger than the average parking space. So the city's zoning laws basically say that every resident will be required to make room for a thousand-pound, truck-sized roommate, AND pay extra rent for all the space it takes up - regardless of whether or not the residents actually own or need an automobile.

If the City's planning board actually chooses to enforce the requirement here (they're allowed to make exceptions, mercifully), the project won't happen.

Avesta has proposed a compromise in which they build only 8 parking spaces on the ground level. But even that is too much. Building parking here would wallop the city with a triple tax:
  1. A $1.1 million tax on affordable housing: Eight parking spaces would occupy roughly 15% of the proposed building's area, and because structured parking is so expensive, it could eat up as much as 20% of the construction budget. So City Hall is effectively putting a 20% tax on affordable housing. We don't even tax cigarettes that much. Remember, this is a publicly-funded project, so the City's basically taxing itself - or, more accurately, it's taxing our affordable housing fund.

    Beyond that, the space that eight parking spaces occupies could be used instead for six more studio apartments instead. So, the city and state are spending 15-20% of their "affordable housing" subsidy for parking instead - that's $600,000-$800,000 - PLUS they're preventing themselves from providing six more affordable apartments, which will cost them about half a million to build elsewhere in a similar project elsewhere. All told, that's about $1.1 million lost for Portland's affordable housing efforts.

  2. A $9,600 annual tax on public parking garages: if you owned a shopping center that already had a shoe store in it, it would be awfully bad business for you to force the grocery store and florist to sell shoes as well. But that's effectively what City Hall is doing here, by simultaneously operating public garages within two blocks of the site, and simultaneously requiring the developer to build more parking. A block west from the proposed project, the City runs the Gateway Garage, one of the more under-utilized garages in the city, and a block south is the city-owned Free Street garage. Even if a tenant here did need a car to commute during the days, they could easily find room for it during nights and weekends in public garages.

    Instead, the city is using public money to undermine its own parking business. That is stupid.

    It costs $100 a month [note how this is about 1/5th as much as it costs to rent a similarly-sized efficiency apartment - a clear indication that the City is subsidizing car storage far more than it's subsidizing rents for living people], or $1200 a year, to park in a public garage. But if Avesta builds 8 new parking spaces on Oak Street, then the City's garages will lose the opportunity to collect rent from 8 automobiles. That's $9600 a year in lost revenue. Taxpayers will have to make up the difference.

  3. A $6,700 annual tax on METRO: similarly, by requiring car storage on-site, City Hall is also undermining its publicly-subsidized transit operation. METRO buses go past this site every 5 minutes, 16 hours a day, which means that most of this building's tenants will likely be regular transit riders. But if the City requires 8 parking spaces there, then it's mandating 14 fewer transit customers - eight drivers, plus six fewer residents who can't live there because the space that could have been their apartments will be given to automobiles instead. A METRO pass is $40 a month, or $480 a year. That means the 8 parking spaces will cost METRO about $6700 in lost revenue - and again, you and I will take up the slack.
The ten-year net present value of this lost parking and bus fare revenue adds up to over $100,000, which brings the grand total to $1.2 million in wasted or lost public funds.

It goes without saying that eight more parking spaces next to Congress Street will also put eight more cars on downtown's congested streets, and generate eight more cars' worth of air pollution, and give us eight more opportunities to get into accidents.

This is just one small example of how burdensome and wasteful the city's parking requirements can be. Keep in mind that we're just talking about 8 parking spots - just imagine the money we're losing from larger developments.

Ideally, the City should get out of the expensive and pointless business of parking regulation altogether - just the same as the state got out of the business of regulating power plants, or how the federal government got out of the business of regulating airline routes. But if that can't be managed quickly (and it probably can't be), then this particular project deserves a pass.

Build housing, not parking.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New on Google Maps: Bicycling Directions

Google Maps have quietly added bicycling directions to their website, using off-street bike path data from the Rails to Trails Conservancy.

The directions are still pretty rudimentary, but with the help of users' suggestions, they should improve over time. Google Maps also now recognize off-street multi-use pathways like the Eastern Prom Trail, the South Portland Greenbelt, and the Mountain Division Trail as options fo walkers and cyclists (they're outlined in green in the screenshot below), and include some fairly accurate estimates for how long each trip would take by bike:

A lot of other cities, including the other Portland, New York, and Providence, also have their on-street bike routes mapped in Google Maps. Here's a preview of what we might be able to expect in the future:

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Documentary Screening: [The Other] Portland: Quest for the Livable City

Here's something for your calendars:

This documentary is one of a series from Making Sense of Place Films, which has been airing on public television stations nationwide, and is coming to Maine thanks to the local office of the Trust for Public Land. Watch a preview here.

Conventional wisdom considers the other Portland to be one of the nation's most "livable" cities, but, as someone who lived there for five years and did quite a lot of work related to its land-use planning laws, I can personally attest to a lot of issues with the city and how it's run. The urban growth boundary preserves farmland outside of the city limits, but it also makes homes in the city less affordable, and it draws a literal boundary between "the city" and "nature" - two things which should not be segregated, in my opinion.

For most of the past decade, Oregon has also had terrible economic problems - Portland's unemployment rate is currently second only to Detroit among major metropolitan areas - and terrible partisan gridlock in its state legislature. These problems are not entirely unrelated to the state's land use laws, which are extremely politically divisive and haven't been substantively updated to reflect the state's economic transformations in the past 30 years.

After my time in Portland, Oregon, I spent a year in Houston, Texas - a city with very few land-use laws and a lot less natural beauty. Nevertheless, in Houston, I could find a rewarding job, live in an affordable apartment in a walkable in-town neighborhood, and go out to eat several times a week at cheap, delicious restaurants operated by the city's diverse hordes of immigrant entrepreneurs. By most measures that really matter, Houston was more livable.

Anyhow, I've been invited to comment on the film and the other Portland in a panel discussion after the screening, along with other planners and elected officials from the region. I hope to see you there!

Friday, March 5, 2010

The working parking waterfront

Kudos to reporter Tom Bell for bringing attention to the over-supply of cheap parking - on waterfront property, no less, in today's Portland Press Herald. Bell notes that "Until the middle of the last century, when Portland's waterfront was a hub of transportation and fishing activity, the piers were covered with buildings, including warehouses for grain, molasses, coal and wood."

This was the city's working waterfront heritage, which everyone wants to preserve and protect.

However, Bell goes on to observe that "Most of those buildings have been demolished over the years, and today more than three-fourths of the area that could be developed in the central waterfront zone has no buildings. Instead, there is plenty of parking."

It's got some choice quotes, including:

“We don’t have a working waterfront. We have a parking waterfront,” said Don Perkins of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
This is kind of a dangerous idea. Portland prides itself so much on its working waterfront - the handful of bait shacks, trawler berths, and chandleries that still remain on the city's piers. Speaking the truth - that 3/4 of the "working" waterfront is really just a big parking lot - really deflates this big source of the city's pride.

Even the hotel and convention business, which is traditionally been seen as a prime economic adversary of marine industrial uses on the city's piers, agree that the acres of empty lots are a blight on the waterfront:

More public transit is the key to eliminating parking lots on the waterfront, said Barbara Whitten, executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Portland. "A sea of cars," she said, "is not an attractive way to market the waterfront."

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Texting-While-Driving Solution: Park the Car, Take the Bus

Clive Thompson to Texters: Park the Car, Take the Bus


"Texting while driving is, in essence, a wake-up call to America. It illustrates our real, and bigger, predicament: The country is currently better suited to cars than to communication. This is completely bonkers."

It's Not A "Jobs Bond," It's A Highway Builders' Bailout

Yesterday, Augusta Democrats proposed a $100 million borrowing package, the lion's share of which would pay for the Maine Department of Transportation's completely unsustainable highway-building agenda. Here's the breakdown:

  • Highway Construction
    $ 47,500,000
  • Railroad preservation:, Aroostook & Androscoggin Counties
    $ 25,000,000
  • K-12 School and Higher Education Energy Improvements
    $ 20,000,000
  • Drinking Water and Waste Water State Revolving Loan Funds
  • Overboard Discharge, Underground Oil Tanks & Culvert Replacement

They're euphemistically calling it a "jobs bond." But if the Legislature is really interested in growing jobs, why waste so much money on highway construction? The same amount of money invested in Maine's research and development programs would generate thousands of more jobs, which would actually last beyond one construction season and generate real value for the state's economy in the longer term.

Do our lawmakers really think that moving around sand and gravel is the future of the Maine economy? Of course they don't. Calling this a "jobs bond" is pure political spin. In reality, it's a bailout for the state's mismanaged and broke Department of Transportation. Legislative Democrats want to give one of the worst-managed agencies in state government another $47.5 million so that they can keep their completely unsustainable highway-building programs on life support for one more year.

But by spending scarce public funds on this - instead of more proven and successful economic development programs - the Democrats are actually destroying a real opportunity for Maine to create new jobs and businesses. No funding for the Maine Technology Institute, the state's high-tech research and development investment fund, means that hundreds of potential jobs in Maine's biotechnology, environmental technology, and other high-tech sectors won't have a chance. No funding for the Communities for Maine's Future program means that numerous Main Street small businesses and landlords will have to wait a little bit longer to implement their growth plans.

It's as though we're spending $47.5 million to keep a decrepit typewriter factory open, while giving the cold shoulder to the mobile application programmers headquartered down the street, simply because the typewriter factory has better lobbyists.

The irony is that the Legislature is also proposing to spend another big chunk of money on energy efficiency grants in Maine school buildings. So we're going to spend $20 million to reduce oil-dependency on one hand, and simultaneously spend $47.5 million to maintain Maine's much larger oil-dependency problems in the transportation sector.

Another irony: $25 million would go to maintain the state's moribund railroad lines, which are at the breaking point after decades of impossible competition from the state's subsidized highways. After decades of pavement expenditures measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars, this is way too little, too late. Even I, a rail supporter and advocate, have my doubts about whether the state can afford to buy a railroad in Aroostook County.

Luckily, the bonding proposal is still just a rough draft at this point. I know there are plenty of Augusta Democrats who have better sense than this, and the highway funding is probably just a bone they're trying to throw to rural lawmakers.

Let's hope better sense prevails, and better investments replace the highway fund bailout.