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

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Huge transit-oriented development proposal for Thompson's Point

The Press Herald is reporting on a major new development proposal for Thompson's Point, a small peninsula on the Fore River that's adjacent to Portland's train station and Concord Coach bus terminal. The concept calls for a major events arena that would host the city's D-league basketball team, a large music venue, and a convention center, in addition to two mid-rise office buildings on the end of the peninsula, a large parking garage, and a hotel.

All this would be located within easy walking distance of the Portland Transportation Center, which offers hourly buses to downtown Boston and Logan Airport, in addition to five daily round trips to Boston's North Station via the Amtrak Downeaster. The convention and hotel elements of this development proposal are obviously trying to capitalize on the site's easy connections to the larger city to our south. This is a major transit-oriented development proposal.

The developers also claim that they have investors lined up and that the project would be privately financed - which is impressive, given how many convention centers and sports arena proposals ask for government handouts in other cities. And it looks like a nice waterfront esplanade would also be included around the edge of the site - hopefully this will be a truly public space, and not a private garden with "no trespassing" signs.

My one regret is that the developers aren't planning to rehab the old brick warehouse building on the site - that building in its own right could have been a really awesome music venue, and added some historic authenticity to a development that runs the risk of feeling like a sterile office park. I'll hold out some hope that the developers and architects think of a creative way to save it, but even if they can't, the overall merits of building so much right next to a major transit hub outweigh that quibble, in my mind.

This project's announcement also comes close on the heels of another convention center proposal from the Shipyard Brewery's owner. The fact that two developers independently are proposing convention centers for Portland speaks to the city's potential to attract more business travellers and events. The Shipyard proposal wouldn't have the direct connection to an intercity transit terminal, but its location within walking distance of downtown's businesses and restaurants, might mean that it could have a stronger positive impact on the local economy.

But that proposal may well be moot: the Thompson Point concept looks more polished, and if they're telling the truth about their financing, it looks like this one's more likely to get built.

Which means that, if Portland wants other downtown businesses to be able to capitalize on its promising convention business, it needs to start planning more robust and reliable bus transit connections between Thompson's Point and the rest of the city.

I'll wait to see more details before I make an outright endorsement, but this looks like a very promising concept, as well as a strong vote of confidence in transit-oriented development sites.

Congress St. Bus Priority Corridor Meeting Tonight

This is kind of late notice, but tonight will be the first public meeting on the Congress St. bus priority corridor planning effort:


It starts at 4 pm in the ICA (first floor of the ME College of Art building on Congress Street), and goes to 7. Maybe I'll see some of you there.

Monday, April 25, 2011

14 Acres of Waste: Portland's Exit 6 Interchange

I've written previously about what a mess Portland's Exit 6 interchange is. It's one of the most dangerous intersections in the entire state. It's unwalkable. It isolates the University of Southern Maine and the city's main grocery store (Hannaford's) from downtown neighborhoods and the city's largest park. And it takes up 14 acres of valuable real estate smack-dab in the middle of the city.

As Corey notes, there are no crosswalks and no "yield to pedestrian" signs. Foot traffic takes its chances with freeway-bound car traffic speeding as fast as 50 miles per hour through the center of our city.

Here's the good news, though: this summer, Portland and PACTS (the regional transportation planning agency) are undertaking a traffic and planning study of Forest Avenue from Deering Oaks Park to Woodford's Corner - including the Exit 6 area.

It's worth noting that this section of Forest Avenue is also "on the peninsula" - at Woodford's Corner, you're less than 2 miles from Portland Harbor to the southeast, and 1.5 miles from the Fore River estuary to the southwest, and less than 1/2 a mile from Back Cove to the northeast - but thanks to Interstate 295, it doesn't feel that way. What Portlanders typically think of as "the peninsula" - the neighborhoods on the downtown side of I-295 - is actually an island cut off from the rest of the peninsula by the freeway.

But this study aims to transform Forest Avenue into a walkable, urban 'main street," much like other peninsula streets like Congress, Middle, and Commercial.

Whatever that study's recommendations are, one of the first recommendations should be a project to shrink the outdated, land-wasting "cloverleaf" interchange into a smaller, more efficient "diamond" interchange, to free up at least 10 acres of land for sale and redevelopment, while also expanding Deering Oaks Park and the University of Southern Maine campus:

The proceeds from those land sales could then be used to rebuild the rest of the street, while also providing a new, long-term source of property tax revenue to the City of Portland.

The "diamond" design would also eliminate the hair-raising merge lane on the I-295 bridge over Forest Avenue, when entering cars going 20 miles per hour on the ramp's sharp curves have about 100 yards to accelerate to 50, merge, and dodge exiting cars slowing down.

Now, the traffic engineer's chief quibble with the so-called "diamond" interchange is that it forces motorists to take a left turns to get where they need to go (for instance, if you're coming from the south, and want to take Exit 6 to get to Woodford's Corner), and that requires traffic lights and long waits. In some cases, they say, traffic might back up onto the freeway.

This is kind of a moot point, since traffic already backs up onto the freeway thanks to Exit 6's terrifying merge lanes. But even so, it's an easy problem to fix: simply prohibit left turns at the exit and entrance ramps, force drivers to make right turns only while going onto or off of the freeway, and install two roundabouts on Forest Avenue to let drivers make U-turns in order to get where they need to go.

Here's a schematic of how it would work. On the left is how a driver makes a left turn in the current cloverleaf intersection, by using the I-295 bridge to fly over Forest Avenue, then doing a u-turn on the cloverleaf to merge with traffic on the right side of the Forest, towards downtown. On the right is how it would work with a smaller diamond interchange and 2 roundabouts on Forest Avenue: the driver would merge with traffic going in the opposite direction, then do his u-turn on the roundabout.

The chief advantages: 2 roundabouts take up a lot less space than 4 cloverleaf ramps. The roundabouts also help move traffic more smoothly AND at lower speeds on Forest Avenue, and they also offer safer crossings for pedestrians.

Here's how it might look in practice:

Those green areas are the acres of land that are currently taken up by the cloverleaf loops. Exit 6 is a bigger waste of land than even Franklin Street. Which brings me to the final, most important reason why this needs to happen: basic economics.

The state is broke. Gas tax revenue is tanking. The federal government is increasingly tight-fisted, and the City is also broke.

Therefore, any study that aims to "transform" Forest Avenue is a waste of time unless it can come up with a viable financial plan to make its recommendations happen. Selling 10 acres of in-town real estate could generate a lot of funding to make Forest Avenue better, and the buildings that might get built on that acreage could do a lot of good towards rehabilitating Forest Avenue as a real city street - not just a freeway exit.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Tea Party Pity Party

Here's an entertaining story in today's Portland Press Herald:

PORTLAND - Eric Cianchette plans to sell the Maine Wharf on the city's central waterfront, saying he's tired of trying to come up with a mixed-use development plan that Portland officials will approve.

"I remember my father telling me, 'You can't just go through life saying what you don't want. At some point, you have to tell people what you do want,"' Cianchette said, and city officials "really don't want anything."
Eric is wrong - just like he was wrong about the inflated real-estate value of the wharf when he was suckered into buying it in 2004.

City officials most certainly do know what they want to have on our waterfront. They want successful marine-oriented businesses. They want a prosperous fishery. They want wharf buildings and businesses that take the fullest advantage of Portland's valuable deep-water harbor.

These kinds of businesses aren't easy to grow. They're challenging. They demand smart entrepreneurs who can think creatively.

By his own self-pitying words in this article, I can come to only one conclusion: Eric Cianchette isn't one of those creative businesspeople.

He bought a wharf. He proposed a formulaic, played-out business model instead of doing something challenging and entrepreneurial. And then he got fleeced when the real estate bubble popped. And now - he's blaming City Hall for his problems?


I'm not a hard-assed business guru, but if I were, I'd probably say that this guy needs to stop looking for sympathy, and start looking for success.

There's a lot in common between Eric Cianchette's super sad story and the whole Tea Party zeitgeist of economic frustration. They're all fond of blaming the government. But when I look at those guys, I see a whole lot of failures who are bitterly trying to pin their shortcomings on politicians, instead of owning up to the pathetic reality of their circumstances.

Take, for instance, T.P. Governor LePage's resigning PR flack, Dan Demeritt, a man who made hay by defending businesses against "government regulation," only to succumb to bigger businesses when banks foreclosed on a number of his rental properties earlier this month.

And the Tea Party isn't just failing in business: it's also failing in governance. Just like Eric Cianchette's luxury hotel, the Governor's proposals are going nowhere fast. And true to form, even though he's the Governor now, the government's chief executive, he is STILL blaming the government: "I went on vacation last week because I had nothing to do," the Governor said last week at a Chamber of Commerce speech reported by the Sun-Journal's Steve Mistler. "Because I'm waiting. I'm waiting for legislation. I cannot do anything until the Legislature acts."

These are your tax dollars at work: a vicious cycle of finger-pointing. Who needs leadership when you've got scapegoats?

These guys act as though they hate government. But they need the government more than anyone. If the government weren't there, whom could they blame for their failures? Nobody but themselves.

The bottom line is this: business in Maine - business anywhere - can't thrive until losers like these guys get out of the way. But for the time being, at least Eric Cianchette is getting out of Portland's waterfront.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Neighborhood Byway meeting tonight

Tonight, the City of Portland will host its first informational meeting about a proposed "Neighborhood Byway" network in Deering Center. Neighborhood byways would be streets prioritized for walking and cycling, with low traffic speeds and fewer cars.

The first routes being proposed (see map above) would connect various off-peninsula neighborhoods, business districts, and schools, from Sagamore Village in the west to Deering High School and Woodfords Corner in the east.

The City has some funding in hand to install signage and traffic-calming measures along this pilot route. A neighborhood working group will convene over this spring to decide where that money should be prioritized.

If successful, the concept could be expanded throughout the rest of the city, from North Deering to the Portland peninsula and perhaps even to Westbrook and South Portland. As city construction projects go, this one is cheap, so it could be a great way to expand the city's bike and pedestrian friendliness in budget-constrained times.

If you'd like to learn more or express your support for projects like this one, come to tonight's Deering Center Neighborhood Association meeting at 6 pm at the Hall School, off Warwick Street.

How to Get Rid of Crosswalks in Saco

Annoyed by the need to yield to pedestrians? If you're lucky enough to live in of Saco, Maine, here's how you can get rid of those pesky crosswalks in three easy steps:

  1. Get drunk.
  2. Plow your car into an elderly lady using the troublesome crosswalk on her way to church.
  3. Traffic engineers will take care of the rest, and cite "safety concerns" to remove the crosswalk on your behalf.
It's that easy!

Some bleeding hearts might say, "wait a minute, how does taking out a crosswalk solve any safety concerns? In a busy downtown area, won't people walk across the street anyhow? Doesn't the crosswalk keep those pedestrians safe in most situations among law-abiding, sober motorists?"

How trite of you to focus on those little old ladies who can't drive anymore! Who is thinking about keeping the motorists safe - safe from scurrilous vehicular manslaughter charges? I'll tell you who is: Gorrill-Palmer, the traffic engineering firm that advised the City of Saco to delete two Main Street crosswalks.

Sure, some lousy pedestrians will continue to try to cross the street on foot, even without a crosswalk there. But now, without any legal crossings nearby, you'll be able to "teach them a lesson" without any fear of legal recourse!

So pedestrians, take notice: unless you're road kill, the City of Saco will not tolerate your presence on Main Street.