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

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mandatory parking laws force a nonprofit affordable housing agency to waste money on crappy architecture that makes Portland's streets more dangerous

Tonight, Portland's planning board will consider Avesta Housing's application to build a new apartment building on the corner of Pearl and Lancaster Streets in Portland's Bayside neighborhood - catty-corner from the Whole Foods supermarket, and adjacent to the mixed-income "Pearl Place" apartment complex that Avesta built back in 2006-2007:

Avesta has built lots of great housing for middle- and low-income Portlanders in the past decade, and what they're proposing for this lot is pretty great: two five-story buildings containing 54 apartments, within easy walking distance of two big grocery stores, all of Portland's bus lines, and thousands of downtown jobs. It sounds like a great development that should enrich the neighborhood and add some life to Bayside's streets - until you look at it from the perspective of someone who walks along Bayside's streets.

The walkable, liveable community being proposed only exists ten feet above the sidewalks, on the top four stories of the proposed buildings. The ground level is devoted entirely to a dark, unwelcoming garage, some mechanical rooms, and a few fire exits. Here's the ground floor plan:

According to the rule of thumb that each structured parking space costs roughly $20,000 to build, the extra floor of parking with 28 spots is going to add approximately half a million dollars to the project's price tag. That's $500,000 being sucked out of Maine's affordable housing budget in order to pay for more parking in a neighborhood that already has more than it can use. WTF?

The ground-floor parking also turns what could have been a decent-looking building into an ugly, unwelcoming fortress. Here's a detail of the corner entrance on Lancaster Street:

As you can see, pedestrians walking along Lancaster Street to Whole Foods will enjoy looking at a blank brick wall punctuated by a long, foreboding staircase. Who needs windows? Some ventilation grates add some visual interest - in real life they'll probably add a nice bouquet of exhaust fumes for passerby to enjoy. There's even a cute little "mugger's nook" behind the stairs. If you look carefully in this the rendering you can see someone in a red sweatshirt losing their wallet.

The image is courtesy of PDT Architects, although it's hard to believe they'd want their names on it. But even though I think PDT could have done better at mitigating the disaster of the ground-floor parking garage - some windows would have been a start - they don't deserve the brunt of blame for this.

The lousy design was driven by stupid zoning rules - and an attitude among city planners that affordable housing developers ought to set aside ridiculous amounts of scarce funds to subsidize the storage of automobiles.

The ground-level garage is also ridiculous in the context of the neighborhood around it. Parking is allowed on Lancaster Street, but you will never see a car parked there. Part of the reason for that is the Press Herald-owned parking garage right next door to this site. It's somewhat full during workdays, but begins emptying out around 4 pm - right around the time apartment-dwellers start heading home from work. If Pearl Place residents absolutely need a car to get to work, there are literally hundreds of places for them to park overnight on this very same city block. We don't need to spend half a million dollars for 28 more parking spaces.

Here's the good news: Portland's planning board has the ability to scale back the number of parking spaces required. Just taking out two parking spaces from the project could allow Avesta to move the "community room" down from the second floor to the ground floor, add some life to the building's street level, and free up space for one more affordable apartment above.

The neighborhood won't notice if two parking spaces come or go in this development. But it will notice the difference between a dark, unwelcoming parking garage and a building that actually engages the neighborhood and is designed for people. The planning board should demand the latter when it meets tonight.

Update: as noted in the comments, Patrick Venne also wrote about some of these same issues on his Mainely Urban blog yesterday. Here's his take on the matter.


Patrick said...

Interesting post. Totally agree. Incidentally, I wrote a short post about the same ideas last night, if you're interested: http://mainelyurban.blogspot.com/2011/02/advantages-to-strict-form-based-code-in_22.html

Form based code would alleviate these types of problems.

Scott said...

Interesting that the city would encourage wallet-draining car ownership by low-income individuals.

Ditching the car (which is totally unnecessary in Portland, anyway) is probably the easiest way for anyone to increase the amount of money that stays in their pocket every week.

Corey Templeton said...

I fully agree with the above comments. Besides the costs associated with parking that the developer and the community face with this project, car ownership certainly has an affect on the finances of the people that will be living here. I think there is an income limit for living in this property, and when you factor in the cost of car ownership, there are probably many people that would benefit greatly from getting rid of their wheels. I live in Avesta's only market-rate project, 645 Congress, and I enjoy a $75 discount from each rent check for not having a car/parking space. According the 'original' Pearl Place site (within the Avesta website), "Residents average commute: 2.94 miles."

keith g said...

Would enjoy a follow-up post on what happened at the planning meeting. Does anyone know?

Christian MilNeil said...

I submitted my testimony in writing, do I didn't attend in person. I've put in a call to the planning department to find out what went down, and will follow up here when I hear back.

In the meantime, if any readers happened to attend the meeting, please comment and fill us in!