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

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Will Portland's "transit-oriented" development offer a way in for transit riders?

The Thompson's Point mixed-use development proposal heads to its first workshop at the Planning Board on Tuesday afternoon.

Commenters on this blog and elsewhere have been giving the proposal mixed reviews, accusing it of being too suburban in its style and layout to be considered a real "transit-oriented" development.

I think that's fair, but I also believe that some minor changes could improve it drastically, and make it much more successful as a business venture for the developers and as an interesting place to go for visitors.

This week's planning board workshop will be a good venue to advocate for urban design improvements. It's still early enough for the developers to make changes, especially if those changes might, in the long term, add value to their development.

Here's the site plan as it currently stands. The big building in the middle is the sports arena and event center; just to the south, and sharing a wall with the event center, is a hotel and restaurant. Two mid-rise office buildings are on the southern tip of the peninsula.

Now, imagine that you're a conventioneer arriving here from Boston by bus or train. You walk out the front door of the station and turn left towards your hotel, crossing the train tracks on your way, and see the event building where your event is being held. But then you get annoyed: the main entrance is all the way on the other side! You end up walking roughly the length of a football field, dragging your luggage, to round the corner - at which point you then need to walk along the edge of a large parking lot before finally getting to your hotel lobby.

May I propose a slightly better way?

Instead of attaching the hotel and event center, which inconveniences foot traffic, the Planning Board ought to ask the developers to include a pedestrian street running east-to-west between the events building and the hotel and restaurant. This would give transit riders a shortcut to the complex's other spaces, but it would give the developers a neat little outdoor space to give their development some street life - potentially something like Yawkey Way or Portland Street in Boston:

A more modern example is the "Center Court" outside Portland, Oregon's Rose Garden (in the photo below, the basketball area is on the left; a complex of restaurants and shops is on the right):

I imagine that the developers had initially proposed to attach the hotel to the event center to make it easy for caterers to move between the two spaces, thus easing operations. That's valid. But I used to work in hospitality myself, and there's an old joke that the way to make your work as efficient as possible is to get rid of the guests altogether. And in a way, that's what's happening here. Is having your caterers cross a narrow outdoor space such a high price to pay for accommodating your thousands of car-free guests from New York, Boston, and elsewhere?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

City Councilor Donoghue: "It's Too Hard to Stop Subsidizing City Hall Parking"

Last week, City Hall launched its new TDM2Go.com website, designed to help employers in Portland reduce their parking and payroll costs by getting more employees to work without cars.

It's a great effort, but there's some irony in it, as the Forecaster notes in its news report on the event: "Do as Portland City Hall says, not as it does."

You see, as much City Hall says it wants to encourage more downtown workers to walk, bike, or use transit, it still pays for free parking for every City Hall employee in the publicly-owned Chestnut Street parking garage. Given the "market" rate (I use that term loosely , as the "market" is itself tremendously distorted by other city policies) that's a subsidy of roughly $1,000 per employee every year.

This is, of course, a silly waste of public funds. But it's not as silly as City Councilor Kevin Donoghue's excuse for it: "Staff resources have not been allocated to implement this city policy," said Donoghue, who leads the City Council's Transportation Committee.

You might wonder, as I did, what kind of "staff resources" it takes to kill an ill-conceived subsidy. Wouldn't asking city employees to take personal responsibility for their own motor vehicles during the workday be a lot easier than asking the city bureaucracy to take care of them instead? Isn't this something that hundreds of downtown employees already do without any "staff resources"? Didn't we just go through a labor-intensive budget-cutting process, and wouldn't saving thousands of dollars in parking expenses make things considerably easier the next time around? For that matter, if "staff resources" are really a problem, wouldn't the money that City Hall saves from eliminating its parking subsidies be enough to hire a new full-time city employee?

Forget lightbulbs - how many City Councilors does it take to stop micromanaging the vehicular storage of city employees' personal automobiles?

To be fair to Kevin, whose heart is in the right place, this was a stupid quote made in the flush of embarrassment at being called out for hypocrisy by a news reporter. His natural first impulse was to make lame excuses.

If he'd like to redeem himself, his second impulse should be to make some changes.

Real leaders take charge and get things done without waiting for "staff resources" to do it for them. If real leadership exists on our current City Council, then we shouldn't have to wait until November for City Hall's parking subsidies to die.

The City Council could easily make the changes necessary by directing the city's parking manager to charge market rates for all users - whether or not they work for the city - at the city's publicly-owned garages.

This should not be a hard thing to do. I'd venture to say it might even be easier than changing a lightbulb.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Why is cycling a sausagefest?

Back in 2002, I spent a long senior-year semester as an editor for the Reed College Quest, which distinguished itself for printing anything because it couldn't afford to be picky. I suppose the experience gave me some insights about the nature of editing and publishing, but what I remember most was the deep animosity I developed for the dopey bro who submitted 1200-word, barely-intelligible essays about his favorite burritos every damned week.

However, as little as we deserved to be taken seriously, we still had a few writers interested in doing real reporting. One of them was Elly Blue, who nine years later, I'm proud to say, is making a name for herself as an authoritative blogger and essayist on bicycling culture, feminism, and economics with regular writings on grist.org and a self-published zine called Taking the Lane.

Elly's latest column on Grist examines the "bicycling gender gap." Why do more men ride bikes for transportation? Some have claimed that women are more timid on busy roads, or too vain to break a sweat on the way to work. Blue cites some more convincing and fundamental statistics:
Bicycling takes time. And this is something that, by the numbers, women have less of than men. In 2004, employed women reported an average of one more hour of housework per day than their employed male counterparts. These same employed women reported twice the time spent caring for young children. Employment status being equal, we have more household duties and are far more likely than men to be caregivers for aging relatives.

These kinds of responsibilities add up to more complicated transportation needs. Women make more trips than men, with diverse kinds of trips chained together. And twice as many trips as men's are at the service of passengers -- that is to say, the school drop-off, soccer practice, and the play date wedged in there between the grocery run and the commute to work (see pages 15 and 16 of this paper). No wonder the minivan is inextricably linked with motherhood in America.

We can hope that one day none of these duties will be tied to gender. Until then, statistically, if you're a woman, biking is going to be less accessible to you than for your statistical male counterpart.
"Bicycling is, in much of the car-centric U.S., either a privilege or a punishment," she concludes. "It isn't because we're fearful and vain; it's because we're busy and broke and our transportation system isn't set up for us to do anything but drive."

Elly's analysis doesn't just apply to women - it applies to any demographic group that's geographically isolated and stressed for time. It also helps explain why some cities and nations don't really have a cycling gender gap (they tend to be relatively prosperous places where women are well-integrated in the workforce, have tightly-knit neighborhoods where running errands doesn't necessarily require a minivan, and have robust social services for parents: places like Germany and the Netherlands).

If I look around downtown Portland, Maine, I see lots of women riding bikes. But most of them are in a pretty narrow demographic: in their 20s or early 30s, living without kids in on-peninsula neighborhoods. If I consider the cyclists I know who are also parents and/or live in the suburbs, the gender gap is more apparent: I can name a lot of men and precious few women.

Part of the challenge is to make our suburban neighborhoods more like downtown Portland: places where it's easy to run multiple daily errands without travelling for miles. For the time being, we don't have many neighborhoods like that, so the other part of the challenge is to make well-functioning places like downtown Portland more welcoming, affordable, and accessible to parents and low-income households. Doing both these things won't just get more women on bikes; it'll create a more just and healthy society for everyone.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Megabus now booking for Portland-Boston Concord Coach buses

While there's been no actual increase in the number of buses going between Portland and Boston, you can now book your Concord Coach bus tickets to South Station via the Megabus website. By booking in advance on the website instead of buying your tickets at the station, you can get much cheaper fares (and also plan for and buy connecting bus tickets to NYC and the dozens of other cities that Megabus serves).

Right now, a round trip ticket to Boston, bought at the station, costs $36. But, if you can plan a few weeks in advance, you can now buy a ticket on the same bus for as little as $1 one-way through the Megabus website. Typical fares will be more than a dollar, of course, and indeed, Megabus might even charge more than the Concord Coach ticket counter in some situations, so it's worth comparison shopping. Still, if you're willing to trade the flexibility of a standard first-come, first-served Concord Coach ticket for a reservation on a specific bus, the Megabus option could save you some money.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Save these dates

  • Tonight is the June monthly meeting of the Portland bike and pedestrian advisory committee. We're meeting in the stately State of Maine room this evening: from the front entrance facing Congress Street, take the grand stairs up to the second floor, then follow the hallway to your right to the end. We get started at 5:30 pm and will hear the latest about the Deering neighborhood byway project, Forest Avenue, the Congress Street bus priority corridor project, and the Bayside redevelopment.

  • The 2nd Public Meeting of the "Transforming Forest Avenue" study will be on June 22, from 5:30pm-8pm, in the Merrill Auditorium Rehearsal Hall (20 Myrtle St., around the corner from City Hall). City planner Molly Casto writes that "the purpose of this meeting, open to the public, is to present a series of alternative design concepts for the study area, which extends from the intersection of Park Ave and Forest Ave, along the Forest Avenue Corridor, and through Woodfords Corner to the railroad crossing."

  • The 2011 Active Communities Conference, "Linking Transportation, Economic Development, Health and People, to Improve the Quality of Maine Communities," will be held on Tuesday, June 21, 2011 on the Bowdoin College Campus, in downtown Brunswick. If you can get the day off, it's worth going (Brunswick is about a 70 minute bike ride from Portland, and you can take the 7 bus to Falmouth Town Landing to get 1/4 of the way there). For more information or to register go to the conference website.

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?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Ten years after the City published its "New Vision for Bayside," and three years after the financial collapse scuttled a competitive slate of development proposals for the neighborhood, the empty, city-owned lots along Kennebec Street finally have a new owner.

The Federated Cos. now own five separate building lots between Somerset Street and the Bayside Trail. Details are still in the works, but city planners have verbally described plans to build mixed-use buildings and (in the first phase of development) a 500-car parking garage subsidized by the city and federal governments.

The Federated Cos. website shows a portfolio of mostly architecturally bland apartment complexes (although a planned reuse of a historic mill site in Worcester looks like a more interesting and creative project) and only a limited focus on retail and office development.

Still, even a vanilla mid-rise apartment building would be an improvement for lower Bayside, where there's already an abundance of retail services and office space, and not that many apartments. Adding a lot of housing to these blocks will add a lot of housing within easy walking distance of three big supermarkets, a pharmacy, the trail, and downtown Portland's jobs. And even the blandest architecture is better than an empty, trash-strewn lot.

The city has built incentives into the sale agreement to make sure that Federated actually builds something instead of just land banking the property: " Federated would have six months to get permits and approvals for its development plans, or pay $3,000 each for up to three 30-day extensions," according to the Press Herald, and City Hall will also have the right to buy back the property at the same price if nothing happens within 2 years of site plan approval.

Photo of the Elm Street sidewalk near Marginal Way by Corey Templeton, from his Walk Around Portland blog. This is at the western end of the newly-sold property, and the only way to get to Trader Joe's, due to landlord Peter Quesada's spite fence.

While the fast-track provisions are designed to make Bayside more of a neighborhood, I'm also a little concerned that the city's anxiousness to build something will come at the sacrifice of getting a better project for the long term. Also, there's the fact that infrastructure in the neighborhood doesn't match the city's ambitions for a walkable, transit-oriented district: bus routes haven't been adjusted or expanded (even though thousands of new workers and residents have arrived in recent years), sidewalks are broken and discontinuous (see image at right), and the Bayside Trail, while nice, is not particularly useful as a transportation connection (thanks to bad design and idiot landlords like Peter Quesada, who erects chain-link fences in order to inconvenience his tenants' customers).

In an ideal world, the Federated Cos. would realize that they could reduce their parking costs and add value to their own project by making small improvements to the streets and sidewalks adjacent to their property, and thinking creatively about the empty and under-utilized spaces in the surrounding blocks. I have some ideas on that score that I'll write about here soon...