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

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The new dingbats of Munjoy Hill

Munjoy Hill is one of New England's most walkable neighborhoods, with hundreds of car-free households. So why are the new buildings going up in the neighborhood all designed to give pride of place to storage for internal combustion engines in the places where the front porches ought to be?

Take a look at some of the most recent new buildings that have gone up on the hill in the past couple of years. Virtually all of them are stacked on top of ground-level parking facing the sidewalk:

Cumberland Avenue; architects: Kaplan-Thompson

Some building designs make some attempt to screen the parking behind an entrance:

Lafayette Street; Bild Architecture for Random Orbit, LLC (developers).

But others, like this new McMansion on Quebec Street, don't make any pretense whatsoever of trying to hide the parking: 

Quebec Street; architects: Kaplan-Thompson, again
Who needs a neighborly front porch when you can just show off your minivan's bumper stickers?

Real talk, though: if you're an architect who thinks that your design ought to be veiled behind your client's Honda Odyssey, you've got a self-esteem problem.

A classic southern California dingbat.
CC BY-SA 3.0 licensed photo by Barmysot via Wikipedia
This style of architecture gained prominence in mid-century California, when fossil-fueled sprawl gave rise to thousands of drive-under apartment buildings (one of which is pictured at right). It's indicative of how much respect people afford this style of architecture that they're popularly referred to as "dingbat" buildings.

To my mind, the biggest problem with dingbats isn't that they're ugly – though plenty of people agree that they are.

The bigger issue is that they sacrifice elements of pedestrian-friendly, civic architecture – front porches, stoops, ground-level windows – in favor of dingy carports where bumpers inconsiderately crowd into sidewalks.

Dingbats make walking for everyone else more difficult in an effort to make it more convenient for driving for the residents living upstairs: why walk three blocks to the corner store when your car is literally parked on the stoop?

Architecture reflects its builders' values: where the older buildings of Munjoy Hill prioritize the social, quasi-public spaces of stoops and front porches, these newer buildings prioritize getting into your car before you have the unpleasant experience of making eye contact with a neighbor.

The newly-revised R6 zone, which governs Munjoy Hill and most of in-town Portland's other residential areas, has driveway requirements that are intended to prevent egregious dingbat structures dominated by ground-floor parking garages.

According to Census data, 16% of households in the surrounding census tract own no motor vehicles at all, and an additional 44% have only one car available per household. The people who live on Munjoy Hill now, in other words, don't necessarily need the ground-floor parking that characterizes dingbat buildings.

But the wealthy suburban newcomers who are buying up and tearing down the neighborhood's older buildings insist on bringing more cars and more traffic with them. They're the ones commissioning this architecture.

And at this week's planning board meeting, some of them asked the city to bend the rules to favor even more egregious dingbats on Munjoy Hill.

The owners of 40 Quebec Street recently demolished their property's vernacular apartment building – which had no off-street parking but nevertheless provided attractive homes for renters for decades – and have applied for permission to replace it with an extra-wide driveway that would take up most of the width of their narrow lot.

Dingbat proposal for 40 Quebec St.
Source: GO-LOGIC via City of Portland
It's one of the dingbattiest building proposals that Portland's seen yet (pictured at right is a rendering from their planning board application).

Ironically, the architecture firm for this project is GO-LOGIC, a firm that claims to build super-energy-efficient Passive House buildings. That makes sense, because burning heating oil in a furnace is bad, but burning gasoline in one of the multiple internal combustion engines parked downstairs in order to pop down the hill and pick up some organic take-out at Whole Foods is something that you just can't challenge your clients on.

Luckily, city staff have told the applicants that their design violates the city's zoning rules. The owners don't care, though: they're taking their case to the Planning Board tonight on appeal.

The applicants are asserting that their appeal has merit because it's a "hardship" for them not to have their exhaust pipes stored directly underneath their bedrooms. In other words, that it's a "hardship" for them to park some of their multiple cars on the street, or, heaven forfend, to imagine a life lived with fewer automobiles, as the majority of their neighbors do.

But the planning board also needs to consider the hardships that the applicants want to impose on their neighbors by cramming more motor vehicles and more parking into the neighborhood. On Munjoy Hill, the majority of residents walk on a daily basis. Children and seniors in particular rely on safe, clear sidewalks – sidewalks unencumbered by clumsily-parked vehicles and driveways with poor visibility.

The applicants' proposed home design, with its recessed ground-floor garage, thumbs its nose at the pedestrian streetscape. By privileging storage space for cars instead of space for people at the building's ground-level facade, the architects are capitulating to and showcasing the homeowners' car dependency.

Oil addiction, climate change and the violence of motor vehicle crashes are also serious hardships – far more serious than the applicants' fears of on-street parking.

Dingbat architecture has no place in a city that strives to favor more sustainable modes of transportation. If parking is so important to the applicants, they should build their home in Falmouth or Windham – places where the hassles of car-dependency are accepted and where drive-though architecture is the norm.