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

Monday, July 23, 2007

Walk Score

This new Google Maps mashup calculates the distance between your house and various businesses and services to rate your neighborhood's walkability. My house in the west end scored a 91 out of 100, although that's based on its misguided assumption that the Cumberland Farms is a "grocery store."

Link: Walk Score

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Maine State Pier: Sinking Under Its Own Weight

It's been a while since I've written about the Maine State Pier, that sinking piece of waterfront real estate that's attracted hundred-million-dollar proposals from local developers.

The "request for proposals" competition for the Pier has devolved into a full-blown circus, complete with profanity in City Hall, a "public" "process" that's being invented on the fly, and name-calling among City Councilors. It's pretty much turns my stomach to think about it, which is why I haven't been giving it much attention here.

But just to recap: last year, this fellow, Bob Baldacci, brother of our Democratic governor, began meeting privately with his buddies in City leadership positions to talk about putting hotels on our Maine State Pier, a vital piece of infrastructure on our working waterfront. After some public outcry, the gang hatched a plan for a "request for proposals," which would have the appearance of a public, competitive process, although the short timeframe and previous negotiations made only one submission likely - Baldacci's.

In February, then, Baldacci and his "Ocean Properties" team turned in a half-assed "proposal" that had more typos and grammatical errors than a chimpanzee's transcription of Hamlet. Presumably they expected it would be good enough for a rubber stamp - quality hardly matters in a monopoly - except for one hitch: the Olympia Companies, a local developer, had submitted a competing proposal. And it was clearly superior in almost every respect.

Since then, Ocean Properties has revised its proposal past deadline several times, swear words have echoed through council chambers, and truckloads of Baldacci-friendly union bosses have been bussed in from out of town to lend City Hall a distinctly Tammany flavor. Through it all, a process that was supposed to have been gin-clear and open has been muddled, contested, and out-and-out botched by the Community Development Committee's chairman, Jim Cloutier.

First, Cloutier allowed Ocean Properties to change its proposal well past the deadline. On the surface, this seemed well and good: Ocean Properties came out with better plans and the city got a better selection to choose from. But the last revision from Ocean Properties came just a little more than a month ago, leaving planning staff and the general public only one meeting in which they could air their concerns (of which there are many).

The rest of the lurid details are best outlined in this lengthy feature article currently in the Bollard. Chris Busby stops short of putting the obvious conclusion in print, so why don't I put it down in writing right here: The Ocean Properties developers used massive out-of-town political influence to corrupt Councilors Jim Cloutier and Jill Duson into subverting public involvement and voting for a proposal that was not in the best interests of the City of Portland and its citizens.

Even if you disagree with the "corrupt" label, there can't be any doubt about how little they have done to avoid the appearance of corruption. At the very least, they're guilty of lousy public service.

Through all of this, Jim Cloutier has been petulantly dismissive of criticism: anyone who questions his authority to make up rules as he goes along is labeled "inexperienced" or naive. In the Bollard's article, Khan Cloutier defends his disregard for public process and opinion by telling Busby, "At a certain point, you have representative government and you live with that."

Well, he's partly right: we're supposed to have a representative government. When the question of Cloutier's reelection comes up in November, I suspect we'll come a bit closer to that ideal.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Maine Turnpike Authority Resents Your Legs

The Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) is trying to gain approval for a new headquarters building at the junction of outer Congress St. and the Jetport Connector Road. In the process, they're trying to weasel out of the City requirement that they build sidewalks around the property:

"The Jetport and [sic] Connector Road were [sic] constructed by mutual agreement between the MTA and the City to be without... sidewalks for pedestrians... For safety and efficiency reasons it was therefore agreed that pedestrian use of this area would not be encouraged."
- MTA Request for Reconsideration to the Portland Planning Board, May 17
If it had a sidewalk, the Jetport Connector Road would offer an easily walkable 1/2 mile connection to the nearest bus stop on Western Avenue (on existing sidewalks, it's a less realistic 3/4 mile walk). But at a recent Planning Board meeting, Turnpike Authority officials and transportation engineers made it clear that they had no clue where the nearest bus routes or stops were.

Additionally, the new headquarters building would be surrounded by a four or five acres of parking lots, and they plan to build 50 more parking spaces than are required by Portland's suburban office-park zoning codes. Located in the headwaters of Maine's most polluted watershed (Clarks Pond/Long Creek), these parking lots will soon be sending more oil-soaked runoff downstream towards the Maine Mall.

A cynic would find this only natural - pedestrians, transit riders, and petro-poisoned waterfowl don't pay the tolls that fatten the Authority's political-patronage salaries. But this is an agency that is supposedly governed by a law that requires a focus on "other transportation modes" and "energy-efficient forms of transportation," so its employees' complete ignorance of bus routes is rather striking. And considering the Authority's multi-million dollar annual budget, its strident refusal to build a few yards of sidewalk around its new offices seems as petty as it is shortsighted.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Rx for the Portland Public Market

Neil Takemoto writes one of my favorite blogs, CoolTown Studios, which focuses on how high-quality, vibrant cities and towns attract the creative individuals and businesses that drive the 21st-century economy.

In a recent post, he critiques our own Portland Public Market:

"This is what a public market should look like, but not developed and managed... In the end, it was lack of a public-private partnership, not as much the norm back in the mid 90s as it is today, that simply made the project too costly for the private sector to succeed alone. This is especially the case with new construction - as noble as replacing a parking lot is, private sector new development without public partnerships typically means it must be upscale, and that's simply not what public markets are about."
Guilty as charged - particularly towards the end, the Market felt more like a fancy food court than a place to buy fresh veggies from a local farmer. The following post on CoolTown Studios takes a look at the "grungy" Pike Place Market (the photos at left accompany the post), which is celebrating its 100th anniversary as the longest-running and most-successful public market in the nation.

Seattle's a lot bigger than Portland, but other markets in smaller cities and towns are thriving all over the place. We have a strong food products sector in Portland: in addition to farms and the fishing industry, we've got growing value-added food producers with businesses like Morrison's Chowder and Standard Baking. We also have lots of tourists anxious to import dollars into the local economy, and there's the busy, twice-weekly farmer's market. A truly public Public Market - not a food court - would have clear and measurable benefits for the whole region, if not the entire state.

So who's got the economic development strategy to revitalize the public market - at least the idea, if not the building itself - as a self-sustaining institution that supports local farms and businesses?