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

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Lost Sites: Interstate 295

Last year, an "Architalx" series focused on Portland's "lost sites", those in-between and forgotten places that interrupt the urban fabric with a bit of desolate emptiness. One of the subjects - Franklin Arterial - attracted so much public attention that city leaders are now undertaking a complete redesign of that street.

But as interesting as "Lost Sites" was, it overlooked the elephant on the Peninsula, the congested freeway that cuts off downtown Portland from the University of Southern Maine, our train station, and the nearest Hannaford supermarket: Interstate 295.

But what if Portlanders had a say in how this massive, 60-acre moat were designed? Are cloverleaf ramps really the best use of such valuable real estate? Might we ask for sidewalks where we could be confident that we wouldn't be mugged or make the intimate acquaintance of some suburbanite's windshield?

Below are two satellite images of the existing Interstate 295 corridor in downtown Portland. Roll your mouse over them to see this citizen's vision of what these areas could become.

At Congress Street and Libbytown:

Forest Avenue cloverleaf and Bayside:

Click the above images for larger views.

The central premise of this idea is based on the fact that motorists traveling from the south towards Brunswick or Lewiston/Auburn should not be encouraged to drive through downtown Portland. By disconnecting the freeway, motorists will still be able to take freeways to the edge of downtown, where they'll then have better access to local streets, but through traffic will have to take the Turnpike, located further west.

By removing regional freeway traffic from downtown, this proposal would enhance vehicular access for downtown-bound drivers. The existing layout of I-295 dumps out huge volumes of freeway traffic onto just three streets: Congress, Forest, and Franklin. Re-establishing the street grid will give motorists more options and distribute traffic over a larger geographic area for less congestion on any one street.

This proposal includes a dedicated transitway (the yellow lines in the maps above) that would preserve the north-south connection through downtown for local and intercity bus services.

Most excitingly, though, the empty land that the existing freeway uses up could be re-used and re-developed as new, transit-oriented and walkable neighborhoods. If we replaced the on ramps and highway lanes between Congress Street and Franklin Arterial with new buildings 2-3 stories tall, we could add over 2,000 jobs, and over 800 units of housing downtown.

We could also create valuable new parklands, including a restoration of the historic marshes that once connected the pond in Deering Oaks to Back Cove, and a continuous bike and pedestrian connection between the Eastern Prom, Deering Oaks, and Dougherty Field.

I want this to get people talking about 295 the same way the Architalx presentations got people talking about Franklin Arterial. So far, planning for this highway and these valuable 60 acres of urban real estate has been confined to the Maine Dept. of Transportation headquarters in Augusta, where sadist traffic engineers dream up new and elaborate ways to injure Maine's pedestrians.

But what do actual Portlanders want to make of this corridor?

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