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

Monday, March 25, 2013

Bayside development in perspective

Last week the Planning Board approved the rezoning plan for the Federated Companies' ambitious "Midtown" project.

Some neighbors complained about the size of the project. Its first phase will include 196 units of housing, 97,000 square feet of retail space, and 720 parking spots. Sure, I've said before that there's too much parking. But just for some perspective, here's what it would look like if the city cancelled this project and allowed developers to build all that stuff in the suburbs instead of in a central-city neighborhood.

Here's the Falmouth WalMart: it's 92,000 square feet and surrounded by about 600 parking spaces...

...and here are about 150 units of housing in the Pleasant Hill "neighborhood" of Scarborough (there's at least another 300 paved parking spaces scattered in there, but let's gloss over those for now).

The two aerial views above depict roughly a half square-mile of what used to be lovely Maine farmland. The proposed Midtown project proposes to fit a similar amount of human-habitable space inside one large city block, which ought to look something like this:

But hey, if you think that City Councilors should cancel this project and pave the way (quite literally) for more sprawl in the suburbs, by all means you should let them know before they vote on the rezoning proposal at their next meeting.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

India Street planning open house this Saturday

If you live anywhere in the East End, consider dropping by the Maine Jewish Museum this Saturday to share your $.02 about the future of the India Street neighborhood. Some details from one of the project's consultants:

The Sustain Southern Maine regional planning grant (for more information go to our website) includes a series of "pilot community" locations where we work with local officials  property owners, business owners, and residents to look at their neighborhood and its potential to absorb portions of the regions projected growth.  One of these centers is the India St. neighborhood.  Together with the City of Portland and the India St. Neighborhood Organization, we will be having a public open house on March 16th at Maine Jewish Museum to solicit public input which will inform the project going forward.  This will include a visual preference survey, a walking tour, and talks from the Portland Society of Architects and Greater Portland Landmarks.
Drop by anytime between 12:30 and 5:30. The walking tour goes from 1:30 to 2 pm,  from 2:30 – 3 pm the Portland Society of Architects will give a presentation called “How new and old architectural styles look amazingly cool together,” and at 3:15, Greater Portland Landmarks will give a presentation on “India Street’s evolving role in Portland’s commerce.”

Monday, March 11, 2013

Portland Bike/Ped Advisory Committee meets tonight

The city's bike and pedestrian advisory committee meets on the second Monday of each month at 5:30 p.m. in City Hall room 209 (that's upstairs, just to your left as you get to the top of the grand staircase at the front entrance).

I'm being taken out of town on a business trip, so tonight's meeting will be chaired by Jen Claster. Among the topics of discussion this month:

  • Implementing the city's new "complete streets" policy
  • How to get better, sheltered bike racks at the Portland Transportation Center
  • The Libbytown study (you can find more background material, including concept sketches, on the city's website).

Monday, March 4, 2013

Another choice for Congress Square

As many readers of this blog undoubtedly already know, the task of improving the mediocre public space at Congress Square has had the attention of a city-appointed advisory committee for some time now, and the new owners of the Eastland Park Hotel have pitched a proposal to buy most of the park's real estate from the city and turn it into a ballroom for conventions and events.

Unfortunately, the Eastland Hotel's proposal has galvanized the debate. On the one hand are out-of-town hedge fund managers who want to convert public space to private use. On the other hand are suburbanite activists who are treating this half-acre of downtown Portland like it's Yosemite Valley. The goal of creating a higher-quality public space that benefits the entire neighborhood has been mostly lost in the shuffle.

So thanks to Clifford Tremblay, an architect who recently moved to Portland, for trying to change the conversation. Clifford pitched these ideas for Congress Square at a Portland Society of Architects "Drink 'n Crit" earlier this winter (I was on the design jury while he presented this concept and I'll try to paraphrase his pitch here).

Courtesy of Clifford Tremblay

Clifford's proposal consists of two fundamental elements: activating the center of Congress Square by inviting through-traffic, and activating the edges of Congress Square with new uses and friendlier edges.

As for the first challenge — getting more people into the center of Congress Square Park —  Clifford proposes a new diagonal orientation for the park, to encourage cut-through foot traffic from Congress to High Street (see site plan above). The center of the park would become a secondary pedestrian-oriented street, defined by a row of trees and a water feature. Clifford makes the point, echoing a number of other architects and members of the citizens' advisory committee, that the current park's sunken design, with several steps leading down into the park from Congress and High, should be eliminated. Clifford would level the park with Congress Street, and relocate a more modest set of stairs leading up to the park to the western edge of the site.

Courtesy of Clifford Tremblay

The second crucial aspect of Clifford's proposal — and again, it's an idea that's been echoed by several architects, business owners, and neighborhood activists — is that the edges of Congress Square need to be more porous in order to invite more public use and public ownership. The sketch above shows a view of Clifford's proposal from Congress Street, with the Eastland hotel in the background. Note the active sidewalk dining on the eastern side of the park (this building, the former "The Kitchen" restaurant, is supposedly under contract to become a new haute-cuisine restaurant). The northern corner of the park, currently a no-man's land of bleak shrubs, is here transformed into a more inviting — yet still relatively secluded and quiet — spot for tables and a performance stage.

At the rear of the site, Clifford has optimistically suggested new windows and awnings to the Eastland Park Hotel's facade (currently a blank wall painted with a mural). Last of all, note the previously-mentioned lack of stairs between the sidewalk and the park. Sure, it's just a Sketchup drawing, but it looks a lot more inviting, doesn't it?

The primary strength of the ballroom proposal from the Eastland is that it provides an economic development boost to this part of the city. Still, what they're pitching isn't nearly good enough to overcome the opposition's strident concerns over the loss of open space. I don't particularly agree with those concerns, but from a purely pragmatic perspective, the owners of the Eastland need to do a whole lot better in terms of their own designs (a preliminary and pathetic example of which is pictured at left) if they really want to convince the public to surrender the less-than-perfect status quo.

This is valuable real estate in the heart of the Arts District. What if the City built — and collected rent on — a row of small artists's studios built to screen the Eastland Hotel's blank walls? What if the City leased park space to the new restaurant on the Congress Street side? These new uses could generate new rental revenue to support park renovations, while adding to the park's vibrancy as a public space, and improving property values in the surrounding neighborhoods. The Eastland Hotel's current proposal frankly can't compete with these possibilities.
This is still public space, and Portlanders absolutely should demand a higher standard of design. Thanks to Clifford Tremblay for changing the conversation in the right direction.