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

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Some New Energy on Middle Street, and Too Much Parking in Falmouth

Developers are giving some attention to the western stretch of Middle Street, with an eye towards making the area around the 1970s-era Canal Plaza complex more lively and pedestrian-friendly.

First up: the new owners of the Canal Plaza complex and one of their tenants, the new Canal 5 Studio architecture firm, are looking into ways to make their buildings and its central plaza more engaging to the street, and more successful as a public space. Mainebiz ran a preliminary sketch yesterday on their website (at left), and also revealed that the owners are also considering increasing their investment in the property by adding additional floors to two of the complex's office buildings.

The new landlord, Tim Soley of East Brown Cow, bought these buildings a couple years ago, in the depths of the recession, at a low price that assumed that the ground level would continue to be leased as offices. But by adding some street-level interest and attracting more foot traffic, the new owners are clearly looking to boost their revenues substantially by charging Old Port rents in new ground-level retail spaces. If it succeeds, more tourists will get lured up to explore Monument Square and the Arts District. It's a great example of how pedestrian-friendly development that enhances public spaces can be extremely lucrative to developers and neighborhoods.

I'd also like to put it on the record that I'm quite fond of the Canal Bank buildings - they're one of the rare positive examples of 1970s-era modernism that we have in the city (the only other one that comes to mind is the Portland Public Library). I particularly like the window pattern on the tallest building at the rear of the plaza, which, despite its height, has a stately and subdued quality to it (see Corey Templeton's photo at right, from his Portland Daily Photo blog). I hope that the new plaza renovations and additions will respect and enhance the rest of the complex's classic modern architecture.

Also on Middle Street, the old Canal Bank building at 188 Middle (right next door to the Canal Plaza complex) has finally found a retail tenant in the street-level space that was formerly home to the Pavilion function hall. That tenant is Urban Outfitters, catnip to suburban kids with high credit limits and a vanguard in high-rent shopping districts like Boston's Newbury Street.

I have mixed feelings about this. While I'm glad that Middle Street is on the up and up, and successfully attracting businesses and their customers away from the blasted Maine Mall, I'm also wary that our city's downtown area could eventually become a sterile, outdoor copy of the blasted Maine Mall - much like Boston's Newbury Street is today.

To put it another way, maybe Urban Outfitters will entice those Falmouth brats to stop loitering in Post Office Park - or maybe it'll just entice increasing hordes of upper-middle-class twits to take over the entire city. We talk about affordable housing frequently - maybe it's time to start talking about the possibility of affordable retail space in downtown Portland, before we get to the point where new businesses can't afford to start up here.

And speaking of twits from Falmouth, that town's planners are now negotiating an expansion of the Portland area's closest Walmart. A story about a suburb's sad progress towards increasing misery and ugliness is generally not worth mentioning here, but this little bit from the Falmouth Forecaster's news report struck me as funny:

"Walmart has also applied for a waiver to build only 569 parking spaces, instead of the 621 [roughly 6 acres' worth - ed] that would be required, citing 'historic under-utilization of the parking lot.' "

Hey Falmouth Town Planner Theo Holtwijk: if the world's largest owner of parking lots by acreage thinks that your town's parking requirements are too high, it just might time to revisit your zoning codes.

1 comment:

Green Guy said...

If you've been to other towns where Urban Outfitters have descended you will see it is the begining of the end for local stores. Those Old Port retailers who have braved the weather and made the area desireable deserve kudos but dumping a shark into the tank with them is no way to say thanks. Its a race to the bottom. As with Boston, NYC and Austin these retailers bring the Disneyfication of local downtowns. They'll drive the rent up, and mark my words. Without protections, (a limit to the number of chains in the downtown) the Old Port will continue to become an outdoor Mall that you can visit anywhere USA. Spank Dave Marshall very much for over turning the anti-formula business law when he first took office and then ask him to repent his ways and offer a proposal for some kind of limit to the amount of square footage big box chains can inhabit in the Old Port-now that the horse has left the barn.