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

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Why is Portland wasting affordable housing funds on empty parking lots?

Last night the city of Portland declared a parking ban in advance of a snowstorm, which means that everyone had to move their cars into off-street parking lots.

And here's what the 22-space parking lot at Avesta Housing's Bayside East building (a low-income housing complex for seniors) looked like:

There were two more cars parked in the handicap spaces outside of the shot, but still, this is what I'm talking about when I kvetch about the wastefulness of Portland's and MaineHousing's parking requirements.

This parking lot was paid for in part from Maine's Low Income Housing Tax Credits, which are a) extremely limited and b) intended to subsidize affordable housing, not to subsidize our most unaffordable form of transportation.

Building this parking lot forced Avesta to set aside more than half of its 1/3rd acre parcel (adding ~$150,000 in land costs to the project) for pavement instead of for housing. What is today a 20-unit apartment building could have housed *twice* as many low-income households if the city and MaineHousing had not forced them to waste this real estate.

And, on an ongoing basis, this parking lot also forces Avesta Housing, a nonprofit agency, to spend thousands of dollars every year plowing, sanding, patching potholes and paying stormwater fees for an ugly field of asphalt that, as it turns out, their tenants don't want even when it's being given away for free!

Over the years, Portland's affordable housing developers have pissed away millions of dollars' worth of our state's limited low-income housing funds to build parking lots and garages like this one. Imagine how great our bus system could be if that money had been spent on METRO improvements instead.

Maine has over 30,000 renter households that don't own any cars, and Portland is one of the few places in the entire state where those families can live well without an automobile.

It's plainly wrong to mandate that a parking lot is the best way to solve low-income renters' mobility needs. Given the extortionist terms of subprime auto loans and the high costs of car maintenance, expecting low-income tenants to bring their own cars instead of helping them pay for transit passes is borderline sadistic. These families need apartments and better transit service much more than they need free parking, and Portland, as a city, needs planning laws and low-income housing financing rules that recognize this fact.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Ocean Street in South Portland gets a bike lane

A paving project on South Portland's Ocean Street, also known as Route 77, has added a new bike lane that stretches between Broadway to the Cape Elizabeth town line.

This new bike lane fills in a gap between the Casco Bay Bridge bike lane and Cape Elizabeth, where an existing paved shoulder on Route 77 extends all the way through Cape Elizabeth to Crescent Beach State Park. Now, cyclists can enjoy an almost-uninterrupted bike lane between Portland and the beach (there's still a short one-block gap with no bike facilities between the Greenbelt pathway and Mahoney Middle School):

Thanks, South Portland!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"Dirigo Plaza" should include a crucial Mountain Division Trail link

The Portland and Westbrook planning boards are meeting together tonight to discuss the plans for "Dirigo Plaza," a huge shopping center complex with a Walmart that's being proposed on a former quarry just over the Westbrook city line.

Image courtesy of the Portland Press Herald

It's Westbrook's jurisdiction, but Portland has a say in this project as far as traffic impacts are concerned, since it's expected to generate considerable automobile congestion on Brighton Ave. and Riverside St.

To their considerable credit, staff at Portland's City Hall are demanding bike/ped improvements nearby – including new sidewalks and the closure of several right-turn slip lanes along Brighton Avenue.

But the site of the shopping center also straddles the Mountain Division rail line, which has long been planned as a rail-with-trail pathway to downtown Westbrook and beyond to South Windham:

A trail connection could substitute a non-trivial amount of auto traffic off of the surrounding streets with bike and pedestrian traffic on the trail network, so it's a legitimate and relatively low-cost mitigation strategy. Unfortunately, it's not in the developer's plans – so far.

The planning board hearing is tonight, so if anyone else would like to see this trail link happen, please chime in now!

Send comments to the Portland planning board, care of city planner Rick Knowland (rwk@portlandmaine.gov) asking them to reserve a trail right-of-way through the "Dirigo Plaza" site as part of the project's traffic plan.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Tonight: public meeting for new bike lanes on Washington Ave. and bike lane upgrades for Forest Ave.

Back in 2009, the city installed new bike lanes on Forest Avenue from Woodford's Corner to Morrill's Corner. At the time, they were a pretty big deal, filling in a major gap in the city's bike route network.

Unfortunately, the Forest Avenue bike lanes have never seen a lot of bike traffic. They squeeze awkwardly between a smattering of parked cars and the heavy, high-speed car traffic of Forest Avenue. This stretch of Forest is a recognized "high crash location" for motor vehicles and bikes alike. What little bike traffic there is is just as likely to be on the sidewalks – and I can hardly blame those riders from wanting to avoid the chaos on the asphalt.

Tonight, though, the city is holding a public meeting to upgrade Forest Avenue with buffered bike lanes and a center lane for turning vehicles both north and south of Baxter Woods Park (in front of Baxter Woods, the existing configuration will remain). The proposal would remove two lanes of on-street parking spaces, but those spaces are almost never used, so it shouldn't be very controversial. Still, a strong show of support from advocates will be a big help.

The city is also proposing a project to replace little-used on-street parking with new buffered bike lanes on Washington Avenue from Ocean Ave. (where there's an existing bike lane) to Presumpscot Street, a few blocks short of the Tukey's Bridge bike path:

You can find out more about that project here.

Here are the details about tonight's public meeting:

Where: Ocean Ave Elementary School Library
When: Tuesday 4/12 from 6:00- 8:00pm

- Forest Ave will be discussed from 6:00-7:00 pm
- Washington Ave will follow from 7:00-8:00 pm

If you can't make it in person, email comments to Kristine Keeney (the city's bike/pedestrian coordinator) and Councilor Justin Costa (who represents East Deering).

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.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Bigger bumpouts aren't always better

The first phase of construction to narrow down the failed Spring Street urban-renewal scheme is just about complete, and for the most part, it's an improvement: the ugly median barrier is gone, there are fewer lanes of traffic, sidewalks are wider, and bike lanes are coming soon.

But even with the improvements, Spring Street still feels like a forlorn, too-wide speedway through empty parking lots. The hope is that some of those parking lots will soon transform into buildings, and then Spring Street might feel more lively. But for the time being, it's still a sad place.

The weirdest part of the new street is probably at the western end of the project, where the 1970s urban renewal project ended. There, the old street quickly bottlenecked down from 4 lanes east of State to two lanes a block to the west. The traffic engineers' plan for eliminating that bottleneck in the new plan has been causing some controversy. Here's a cyclists'-eye view of what it looks like:

Photo by Steven Scharf

 That's Portland's newest, biggest sidewalk bump-out, sitting right in the middle of what clearly used to be the historic path of the old Spring Street.

Now, as much as I like bump-outs, this design is stupid.

On the north (right, in the photo above) side of this corner, there's a clearly-defined street wall defined by the Little Tap House building, mature street trees, and other historic buildings a little further on up the street. And on the south side, there's a city parking lot – a remnant scar of Spring Street's urban renewal demolitions and a prime opportunity for a new building that could activate the corner.

But for some reason, the engineers designed the new Spring Street to avoid the historic corridor. Virtually of the site's contexts – the buildings, the trees, the streetlamps – tell motorists and cyclists to "stay right", but the paint on the pavement says, "swerve left, then right."

This, unsurprisingly, is confusing people. The Press Herald even got photographs of a driver rolling their car right over the new bump-out. To the driver's credit, this is exactly what the street's visual cues suggest you should do. But if you're a traffic engineer looking at a blueprint of the intersection, you don't see those visual cues, or the intersection's historic context.

Portland Press Herald graphic

Here's another problem with the bump-out: the reason it's so huge - two lanes wide! - is because on the eastern side of the intersection, in front of the Portland Museum of Art, the new Spring Street incomprehensibly bloats to 3 lanes, including an idiotic double-right-turn lane. While the rest of Spring Street got a road diet, this particular section senselessly got a widening.

The sudden bloat in turn lanes is obviously confusing to drivers – the driver who got caught cruising over the bump-out is trying to drive straight on Spring from one of the new right-turn-only lanes. The intersection worked just fine when there were only two westbound lanes there, though. Getting rid one of the three westbound lanes there and restoring the former layout would be an easy short-term fix.

And here's my final beef with the bump-out. The city owns a parking lot on the south western side of Spring Street. Greater Portland Landmarks owns the building on the southeastern side of Spring Street. Both of those corners are prime opportunities to activate a new Spring Street with attractive new buildings that match the context of the historic neighborhood and honors the historic street wall.

If we were willing to shrink the bump-out AND sacrifice one of the new right-turn-only lanes, we could actually get more pedestrian space overall, and get a more sensible intersection, and put more city-owned real estate to work to create new housing. How about it, City Hall?

Friday, October 30, 2015

Suburban streets get complete

Two large-scale construction projects have delivered impressive "complete streets" transformations along parts of Route 1 in South Portland and Falmouth this summer.

To the south, a sewer upgrade project along Main Street in Thornton Heights slimmed down a four-lane road into a two-lane city street in the neighborhood's center, widened sidewalks, and added landscaped curb extensions that will also help filter stormwater before it flows into storm drains. Construction's not quite done, but some of the new sidewalks and curbing have been installed, along with some of the basic stormwater filtration gardens:

Thornton Heights is a classic streetcar suburb, but the neighborhood has had a hard half-century since it became the dumping ground for traffic from a nearby Maine Turnpike spur road.

Unfortunately, the new Main Street is still only an island of walkability – it remains cut off from surrounding neighborhoods, thanks to that previously-mentioned Turnpike stump at the neighborhood's southern edge and the inhospitable stretch of Route 1 that leads through the ugly Cash Corner intersection.

Also discouragingly, South Portland city councilors last year rejected a proposal to allow more walkable and transit-oriented zoning in the neighborhood. So, even with a more urban, walkable street, it's questionable whether neighborhood-oriented small businesses will follow, given that the status quo zoning favors auto-oriented strip mall development.

On the other end of Route 1, in Falmouth, they've just finished a very similar street project for that town's main drag. This one also includes new, wide sidewalks, lots of new street trees, lighting, bike lanes and several landscaped medians for safer crosswalks:

Unlike Thornton Heights, Route 1 in Falmouth is mostly surrounded by strip malls and parking lots – it's hard to tell there whether you're in Maine or in suburban Texas, so the town's nice new street feels pretty lonely.

But Falmouth is one step ahead of South Portland in one important respect: it's enacted some progressive zoning to encourage new walkable development along their new main street. That's been slow to come so far, but the new sidewalks and street trees should help encourage the hoped-for investment.