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

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Preble and Elm

As referenced in yesterday's post, getting a quality mixed-use development built in the empty railyard lots of central Bayside is going to be a challenge. Here's a view up Preble Street now, from Marginal Way looking towards downtown:

The street looks exactly like what it is: a failed urban renewal expressway, conceived by mall designer Victor Gruen (the Butcher of Franklin Street) to move lots of cars into Monument Square. And it doesn't even do a particularly good job at that: the street is so bleak that even most drivers use alternate routes.

The idea that Bayside can flourish as a walkable neighborhood, when this is its main connection to downtown Portland, is ridiculous. City Hall has to do more to improve these streets if they really want Bayside to succeed - and if they want the Federated Cos. to deliver a high-quality development.

But here's the good news: if the Federated Cos., the City, and surrounding landlords got together and got a little creative, there's a lot of potential for increasing property values, development opportunities, and the streetscapes of Preble and Elm Streets.

Take a look at the current plan for these lots near Elm Street (this comes from the Bayside Trail plans, but the brown blocks around the trail show the lots that the city recently sold to the Federated Cos. for redevelopment). Note that the triangular wedge where Preble meets Elm currently wastes a lot of space. Note that it also crowds the westernmost of Federated's newly-bought development lots and the lot to the south (owned by Skillful Vending) into an unweildy wedge shape. That's an important detail, since oddly-shaped lots are generally more difficult for developers to build on due to higher construction costs and oddly-angled interior spaces.

Some additional background: the Portland Peninsula Traffic and Transit Studies of 2000 and 2008 (respectively) both found that Preble and Elm were underutilized, and that both of them could feasibly be turned back into 2-way streets (this wouldn't just help calm traffic; it would also make it easier for drivers to get around Bayside).

Plans are also in the works to re-connect Somerset Street across Elm, and extend the Bayside Trail through this area to connect to Deering Oaks Park.

So with all the changes in this area, we ought to be asking whether that huge wedge of land where Preble and Elm Street come together - a piece of pavement designed to let cars coming down Elm Street fly into the Marginal Way intersection at 35 miles per hour - is really the best use of our real estate in Bayside.

What if the City (and possibly the folks at Skillful, who, I understand, have been very supportive of Bayside redevelopment efforts) worked out a land exchange or sale to build something more like this?

Some potential consequences of this scenario:
  • The developers get more land to build on, and would be able to build a larger or higher-quality building with lower construction costs (thanks to the fact that there would be larger floorplates and fewer weird angles in the walls);
  • City Hall gets more tax revenue;
  • All parties could use some of the proceeds from their mutually-beneficial transaction to pay for improvements to the Preble and Elm streetscape;
  • And surrounding property owners would also see benefits from higher property values and a more vibrant neighborhood.
Here's a quick sketch of what it could look like (it's the same view as above, looking up Preble from Marginal Way). Would you stroll down this street?

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