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

Friday, September 21, 2012

The a-park-ment

Today is Portland's first participation in the global Park(ing) Day event. Jess and I, with Morgan Law of Kaplan-Thompson Architects, built this "a-park-ment" on Fore Street. It's been a fun day with lots of well-wishers dropping by and enjoying the new public space:

The a-park-ment is meant to draw attention to the city's housing shortage by noting the fact that a single parking space occupies roughly as much real estate as a small studio apartment (our structure, pictured above, actually didn't use the full length of a standard parking space).

Old news to anyone who reads this blog, but if City Hall sold its surface public parking lots — just a small fraction of the city's government-owned parking — for redevelopment, the real estate could contain over 20 new buildings the size of the new Oak Street Lofts building in the Arts District, with nearly 800 new housing units, which would generate an additional $1.25 million every year in new tax revenue for the city.

Just sayin'.

I've written a more detailed report with a lot more photos of the city's six inaugural Park(ing) Day parks over at the LiveWork Portland blog.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cart is to Horse as Streetcar is to Zoning

Jonah Freemark's Transport Politic blog has crystallized the reason why Portland, Maine isn't ready for a streetcar yet: we still don't have the zoning in place, nor do we have progressive developers willing to invest in transit-oriented development.

Streetcars, it is said, will bring new construction and the densification of districts that are served by the new rail lines. But streetcars alone aren’t enough to spur construction of residential and commercial buildings in neighborhoods with transit service. Just as important are the municipal regulations guiding new development. If zoning prevents large buildings around streetcar corridors, how exactly will streetcars lead to new construction? 
Freemark compares two streetcar projects — one in Portland, Oregon, where zoning allows for the construction of taller buildings without parking, and one in St. Louis, where the zoning code is more similar to Portland's, with 1960s-era parking requirements and height limits that prohibit buildings taller than 45 feet high. The latter project looks likely to be little more than a toy train, and a drain on the local transit system's budget, while Portland's project was conceived from the beginning as a tool to promote urban density, and has spurred billions of dollars' worth of new investment in walkable neighborhoods.

Our golden opportunity to implement transit-oriented zoning codes along a possible streetcar corridor was the "Transforming Forest Avenue" study conducted last year. When that study was about to start, I wrote a post about its potential to foster transit-oriented development along a new streetcar corridor. Here's what I wrote back then:
...even though a streetcar might be possible, it won't happen unless three very uncertain conditions are met:
  • key property owners along Forest Avenue and in Bayside get smart enough to replace their parking lots with new buildings, to help the line attract enough riders;
  • the surrounding neighborhoods remain open to having new neighbors, more businesses, and taller buildings along Forest Avenue, and
  • a leader in city government can champion the concept and secure funding from state and federal partners.

Unfortunately, there was very little that was transformative about the Forest Avenue study's recommendations. It failed to engage landowners or produce a more progressive zoning code per requirements #1 and #2, and now that the study's complete and part of the Comprehensive Plan, Forest Avenue has basically been ruled out as a financially-feasible streetcar corridor. Besides, the only new development along that street in recent years has involved new banks that insisted on building large parking lots and drive-through lanes (I'm looking at you, Key Bank, Town & Country Credit Union, and cPort Credit Union). When our local financial institutions are building stuff that's outwardly hostile to walkable urbanism, it's not a cause for optimism.

And even if the zoning gets fixed, it's anything but certain whether local developers are smart enough to shift their thinking out of their 20th century mall mentalities. Even the city's more progressive developers insist on including ugly parking garages under condos being built within a stone's throw of the Old Port — it hardly seems likely that these people could build the kind of car-free population density that a streetcar would require.

As for requirement #3, Councilor Marshall seems to be emerging as the champion the city needs to advocate for transit-oriented development. But he needs to be more than an advocate for a streetcar for the sake of a streetcar — he also needs to be a champion for transit-oriented, walkable zoning codes. In his 6 years on the Council so far, there's been precious little movement to relax zoning codes to the point where genuinely transit-oriented development would be feasible. Given that any streetcar is still years away, though, now would be a good time to start working on that problem.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Surprise! Munjoy Hill has a Bike Lane

Congress Street on Munjoy Hill has been going under a repaving project the last few weeks. Today, they're painting the stripes — only it looks like they've taken the opportunity to reconfigure the lanes a bit:

Awesome, huh? Munjoy Hill now has a nice wide bike lane for uphill-bound cyclists! Downhill cyclists can travel at the speed of car traffic, so a separated lane isn't really necessary on that side, but it sure is nice while you're huffing uphill.

This was a complete surprise to this particular bike advocate, and a very pleasant one.

Thanks, Maine DOT and City Hall!

"Maritime Landing" update

The "Maritime Landing" proposal for Bayside (first discussed on this blog a full year ago) is moving one step closer towards approval, as the City Council seems finally ready to endorse a purchase and sale agreement with the developers that would transfer them the city-owned land and grant them $9 million in funds to construct a 700-space parking garage. 

You can probably guess how I feel about the city's spending $9 million for a urine-soaked garage. In this case, though, I'll hold my nose (perhaps literally) because the developers are proposing to build a lot of housing to go along with it, plus active retail space on the garage's first floor. Last summer, when negotiations were beginning, they'd been proposing 540 apartments; now, they're talking up to 700 apartments (one previously-proposed office tower in the project has been replaced by another residential building) plus large ground-floor retail spaces that stretch the length of Somerset Street and also face the Bayside Trail. 

Here's a rough sketch that they brought to last night's committee meeting. After the Council approves the land sale agreement, the developers will have up to 3 years to construct the first phase of the project (the two towers on the left, plus the parking garage), the tax revenue from which will supposedly repay the city's loan for the parking garage. Sometime after the sale is finalized, the developers will come back to the city's planning board for a more detailed review of the project, including site design and architectural details.

Hopefully it works out better than the Ocean Gateway Garage project, which was also supposed to come with a lot of housing (five years after that eyesore got built with millions of dollars in city funds, it's still just a massive, half-empty parking garage on the waterfront, blighting the neighborhood with its ugliness). It deserves a note of caution that this project's parking garage plans and subsidies, much like the failed Ocean Gateway project, came from a pre-bubble era. And they specifically came from the minds of old-line, 1960s-urban-renewal bureaucrats like Joe Gray and Jack Lufkin, who embraced the anti-urban mentality that new construction in Portland required as much parking as you'd find at the Maine Mall.*

Another concern of mine relates to the project's general urban design. I have a feeling that the buildings are going to be cheap — both in terms of rent, and in terms of materials. The commercial brokers in charge of leasing the large retail spaces seem to be going after boring chains — I'll be astounded if CVS or Rite Aid don't lay claim to a big chunk of the project's retail space. 

Inexpensive, unimaginative urban development is actually good from the perspective of affordability — the city needs a lot more housing for the middle class, and the new residents will need boring places like CVS to take care of basic household needs. But I also worry about Bayside becoming like Boston, full of soulless chain stores and apartment towers with no sense of community.

But those devils will be worked out in the details. For now, it's good to see someone so bullish on Bayside, and Portland.

*This idea, that we needed lots of parking to compete with the suburbs, is typical of these older 1960s-era bureaucrats with low esteem for their city. In the years since these guys have left their posts in City Hall, the Maine Mall's owners, General Growth Properties, have gone into default. In a 2010 article about his parking garage's failures, Lufkin (who had by then been ousted from his city post) still asserted that "the lack of parking is among the biggest obstacles to development in Portland." And yet, in the five years since that garage was built, the number of cars registered in Portland has actually declined by over 6,000, and counting. That's enough cars to fill the Ocean Gateway garage eight times over. Lufkin now works for Gorham Savings Bank, so if you're a depositor there, he's your problem now.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Projects in Planning

Next Tuesday's planning board hearing will discuss some interesting upcoming building projects:

  • Portland Yacht Services is proposing to build and relocate to a new boatyard on the western waterfront, under the Casco Bay Bridge. This could potentially represent one of the biggest private-sector investments in the working waterfront in many years. As Carol McCracken reported on Munjoy Hill News, the new yard might include a dry dock and berthing facilities plus large warehouses for indoor boat maintenance. The move would also open up the current Portland Yacht Services space (on the waterfront near the Eastern Prom) for redevelopment. 
  • In the Old Port, East Brown Cow Management is workshopping a 7-story, 124-room hotel to replace a surface parking lot on the corner of Fore and Union Streets,  catty-corner from the Portland Harbor Hotel. They're only providing massing sketches so far, but even these early plans make it clear that the developers care about providing an active street-level facade along Fore Street, and a dynamic, high-visibility corner that resembles folded glass.

    It's nice to see a progressive developer proposing high-value economic development without sandbagging it with low-value parking to ruin our streets for a change. A well-designed, attractive streetscape is in these developers' strong financial best interests, as they also own the adjoining retail spaces in the Canal Plaza garage, where tenants will benefit tremendously from more foot traffic along Fore Street.

    This development would fill in a big gap in the Old Port's streetscape and help draw more foot traffic westward, across Union Street, and perhaps help spark more redevelopment on the massive surface parking lots that surround Gorham's Corner.
  • Unfortunately, the "Newbury Street Lofts," that ugly parking garage with condos on top, seems headed towards final approval on Tuesday as well. I happened to meet that project's architect in the neighborhood a couple weeks ago; he was pretty upset with my critique, but tellingly couldn't find any faults with my arguments (it was my tone that upset him). Maybe the final design will hold some improvements — it would be a very pleasant surprise, but the architect and developer seem unwilling to budge on their assumption that new buildings need on-site parking (contrary to the evidence immediately above this bullet point), so I have low expectations.