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

Friday, September 26, 2008

Wall Street Vetoes Maine Highway Bond

Via the Portland Press Herald:
The state of Maine could not float a $50 million transportation bond this week because traders told officials there was "no market" at all for large financial transactions such as this one.

The state hopes the national financial crisis will stabilize by next week, when it again tries to access capital, probably getting a higher interest rate than had been expected...

The $50 million TransCap bond is meant to pay for 10 highway reconstruction projects involving more than 20 miles of road in eight counties.
While the state expects to get its loan eventually, it will probably be at a higher-than-expected rate, which will significantly diminish the state's ability to pay for other highway projects. Furthermore, the state expects to pay back the loan with gas taxes, increased vehicle registration fees, and increased allocations from the state's general fund. All of these sources of revenue are expected to decline in the coming years.

The fact that the general fund, in particular, is now paying for highway projects is particularly troubling. The state is cutting budgets for social service agencies and education, and yet we're still pissing our tax money on road construction even as statewide traffic is on a sharp decline.

If Wall Street is refusing to lend money to MDOT's spendthrift highway builders, maybe there's some sense in the financial markets after all.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

When "open space" isn't the best choice for the environment

Tonight, Portland's Community Development Committee reviewed the one and only proposal the City received for the redevelopment of the Adams School site in the East End (about which I've written previously).

Given the state of the housing market in general, we should count ourselves lucky that the City received any housing proposals at all. And doubly lucky that the one we did receive, from Avesta Housing, looks quite strong on first impression. Avesta is proposing 40 units of housing, half of which would be 3-bedroom units suitable for families, in ten similar buildings arranged around a central "Marada Adams Park":

Looks good - the buildings face the street, mimic the neighborhood's triple-decker architecture, and, best of all, provide new, centrally-located, affordable, and walkable homes to forty households. In exchange for this benefit, Avesta is asking the city for a $1.66 million TIF loan, plus about half a million dollars in local and state affordable-housing grants, plus additional affordable housing funds from federal and other programs.

Still, as great as this all seems, I can't help but think about how it could be better. And what strikes me the most is the huge park in the middle of this proposal. I know that the neighborhood wants it there, but the neighborhood doesn't need it by any means. More housing would be better, not only for the city's finances and for the middle-class families who could live there, but for southern Maine's environment in general. Here's why:

For starters, this site already has remarkable access to two of the city's most celebrated open spaces: the Eastern Prom (two blocks down Moody Street) and Fort Allen Park (two blocks down Vesper Street). Besides, sacrificing a small corner of the proposed Marada Adams Park wouldn't by any means harm its intended purpose as a neighborhood playground: if anything, it could improve the space's function, by adding more activity from the additional housing and giving the park a more defined, quadrangle-style frame of buildings.

There are big environmental benefits associated with adding more housing here. Another building could give four more households the opportunity to live in town, within walking distance or a bus ride of thousands of jobs, as opposed to living in a comparably-priced, but much less energy-efficient home in the outskirts of Hollis or Gray. By burning less oil to heat their homes and drive around, families living here would save the local atmosphere from tens of thousands of pounds of pollution every year.

Plus, every four units of housing built here, on an already-developed site in Portland, will save four acres of forest or farmland from being developed into a new subdivision out in the suburbs. And that, in turn, will make a small contribution towards conserving wildlife habitat, keeping local farms viable, and preserving water quality in Maine's rivers and streams.

More housing would help keep the city budget healthy, too. Adding some more market-rate housing here will reduce the project's demand on scarce public funds, and leave more money available for other important affordable-housing projects. It would also increase the city's annual return of property taxes, by over $10,000 a year. That may not seem like much, but it would be enough to keep a city pool open for the summer - which was one savings proposal from the past year's budget cuts.

When you stop to think about it, there are clearly some serious trade-offs to consider here. Sacrificing this small corner of open space could save the city enough money to keep a pool open, or provide special education to four more students each year, or build more affordable housing elsewhere in the city. It would also provide a substantial relief to southern Maine's air and water quality, reduce traffic on our streets, and play a small role in preserving rural communities outside of Portland.

And my more subjective opinion: more housing, with buildings defining a clearer outdoor "room" along Moody Street, could also improve the park's proposed function as a playground and neighborhood gathering spot.

To make a long argument short, we need to ask ourselves this: in a neighborhood that already has so much access to parks and open space, should we really be making all of these financial and ecological sacrifices for yet another patch of grass? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

You can read more about Avesta Housing's "Beckett Green" proposal here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Freeways Without Futures, part 1

Unfortunately, discussions about freeways dominated the joint Portland-South Portland City Council meeting last night. As if the concrete fantasies of Augusta's hidebound engineers are the most pressing issues facing our cities.

Fortunately, though, the discussion focused on how the Turnpike Authority and Maine Dept. of Transportation just can't afford to build new freeways. Of course, that's never stopped them from building freeways before, but wherever this bolt of fiscal responsibility came from, it's a welcome change. Here's Portland Press Herald staff writer Elbert Aull's report:

Falling traffic numbers have put plans to widen a stretch of the Maine Turnpike in Greater Portland on ice.

The turnpike authority has decided to delay adding two lanes to the highway from Scarborough to Falmouth for at least two years, said Conrad Welzel, head of government relations for the turnpike authority.

The decision comes at a time of rising fuel prices and sluggish monthly traffic numbers on Maine's busiest highway corridor.

But then, Aull writes about a $20 million project to widen I-295 between Fore River and the Maine Mall (right next to the state's most polluted waterway, Long Creek): "About $20 million... [to] widen a stretch of I-295 between exits 3 and 4 in South Portland and renovate interchanges in South Portland, Portland, Falmouth and Yarmouth has already received federal funding and will move forward next year as planned, department officials said."

Really? $20 million for a highway widening (pictured above) along a corridor that holds one of the richest opportunities for transit in the state? For half the price, our cities could build a modern bus rapid transit system between the Mall and downtown Portland:

If MDOT is really serious about widening this freeway at a time when the agency can't even afford to fill potholes, businesses can't afford to pay truckers, and commuters can't afford to fill their gas tanks, then we the people of Maine need to get serious about a lawsuit to stop this destructive waste of money.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Gorham Bike and Ski moving downtown

The West End and Parkside neighborhoods will soon have a bike shop, when Gorham Bike and Ski moves out of their current home in Westgate (on outer Congress, the city's most dangerous designated bike route) to the site of the former Good Cause Thrift Shop in Longfellow Square.

According to a tipster, they hope to be open by Thanksgiving, just in time for the seasonal rush on studded bike tires. And skis, I suppose.

If you're visiting Portland from away, GBS also has a bike rental service, at prices from $20 a day.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Bayside land sale passes; project will move on to the Planning Board

Last night, the City Council passed the agreement to sell City-owned land in Bayside to MaineHealth and United Way, which will build a 6-level parking garage and 8-story office building on part of the site, and possibly build two more buildings on the western end of the block at some later date.

Unfortunately, the Council opted to pass the agreement as worded, instead of amending the agreement to include specific reforms aimed at ending Socialized Parking in the neighborhood. Since government-mandated parking prices and time limits are now enshrined in the developers' agreement, it's going to be more difficult for the City to do it right. But it's still possible: the project still needs site plan approval from the city's planning board, and hopefully the city will have a good parking ordinance in place before then.

A commenter asked about the impact of this project on the proposed Bayside Trail, which is also a possible future route for a streetcar or light rail line through downtown Portland. The developers were required to preserve a right-of-way through the property for the trail, and it will be routed behind these buildings:

A big issue at last night's public meeting was the developer's compromise proposal to preserve trail access from Somerset Street. In order to shoehorn the parking garage in on this site, access will be via a 20 foot by 20 foot tunnel between the garage and the office building. Councilor Dave Marshall and others showed some concern that a tunnel wouldn't feel as welcoming, or as safe, as an alley open to the sky. A legitimate concern, and the final design will have to take great pains to make sure this access tunnel doesn't become a urine-soaked disaster.

On the whole, though, I'm glad this is moving forward, although there are definitely aspects of the proposal that will need to be improved in the rest of the planning process. In fact, the sale of this property gives the City and the Trust for Public Land the money to go ahead with developing and landscaping the trail - so hopefully we'll finally see some action after many years of planning.

Monday, September 15, 2008

TONIGHT: Bayside redevelopment proposal in City Council

Tonight, Portland's City Council considers a purchase and sale agreement to transfer city-owned land in Bayside - the seasonal home of the Bayside Glacier - to MaineHealth, owners of the Maine Medical Center, to build a huge parking garage and 8-story office building:

While it's nice to see some more density and activity coming to this part of town, the City's refusal to shake itself free from the idea that this neighborhood needs another huge parking garage (its fourth, after the new construction of two large garages on Marginal Way and the underutilized, 1970s-era garage two blocks away on Oxford and Chestnut Streets) is a little distressing. The parking garage plan is a stale leftover from 1999's Bayside Plan, which was published when gasoline cost less than $1 a gallon. Unfortunately, the City's done little to question the garage proposal's wisdom in the intervening decade.

Nevertheless, if the neighborhood is going to fill up with 8-to-10 story buildings like the one MaineHealth is proposing, the garage might be put to good use - but only if this is the last parking garage built in the neighborhood. Towards that end, the city needs to put strong conditions on the sale of this land and the management of the parking garage*.

In particular, the garage's rates should be set competitively according to market supply and demand. Furthermore, MaineHealth should be required to provide universal transit passes to all of its employees in this new building, and offer a "parking cash-out" bonus, equivalent to the value of a parking space, to any employee who doesn't drive to work.

A big reason MaineHealth wants to build this garage is to provide a satellite parking lot for its hospital on the West End. That's only OK if MaineHealth pays the true costs of parking and providing employee shuttles, and makes an honest and complete efforts to equalize its provisions for transit, walking, and biking with its provisions for drivers. MaineHealth has had a good start in this regard, by providing preferred parking spaces to carpoolers and discounted transit passes. But more needs to be done... especially in this neighborhood.

Sound off on the Bayside proposal at tonight's City Council meeting, which will probably begin discussing this item around 8 PM in City Hall.

*The garage is being funded, in part, through a community development block grant, funding which is meant to alleviate poverty in poorer neighborhoods. Perhaps the City thinks that providing cheap parking for suburbanites will help Bayside's homeless population by giving them more opportunities to squeegee windshields.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

New stuff on the streets

Portland's public works department has been busy this summer with a number of projects that will make walking and cycling easier, safer, and more pleasant. Here's a quick and incomplete look at what's new:

Commercial Street between High Street and the Casco Bay Bridge was ripped up, repaved, and re-striped with narrower car lanes, better crosswalks, and bike lanes. The new bike lanes, coupled with wide outside shoulders on the outer portions of Commercial and the Fore River Parkway, give bikes a continuous safe route between the bus/train station and the Old Port.

On the other end of the waterfront, where ambitous condo plans have fizzled, a behemoth new publicly-subsidized parking garage now hulks over the neighborhood. The area now has more parking than any other time in Portland's history, but islanders continue to complain that it's not enough for them. But enough about the failures of socialized parking. This photo also shows the new Thames Street, which, besides being lined with even more parking, is a nice new waterfront connection to the Eastern Prom bike path. Also, Hancock Street has been re-connected through the neighborhood to the waterfront. Three cheers for restoring the historic street grid!

This is a still under-construction sidewalk on Pearl Street, next to a new mixed-income housing development. I thought it was photo worthy because it might be Portland's first example of in-street stormwater treatment. The gutter next to the curb might be used to collect rainwater and funnel it into the tree wells, instead of dumping it in the sewer. At least, that's how I think it ought to work. I may just be thinking wishfully, though.

Lower down in Bayside, Marginal Way is growing up with a new office building and a student housing complex that replaced a huge parking lot. Marginal has also been reduced from four lanes to three between Preble and Chestnut Streets, which leaves more room for wider, safer bike lanes and some on-street parking. 
Even though the ground floors of these new buildings are dedicated to tax-subsidized parking (for college students living a five minute walk from campus - seriously), a fair amount of ground-floor retail does a passable job of hiding the ugly parking garages. I've also noticed that the new bike racks on the sidewalk at the USM housing are usually overflowing.
Bedford Street, which runs through USM just on the other side of I-295, has had major improvements built this summer as part of a big campus expansion project. Above, new crosswalks, traffic-calming islands, and widened bike lanes, looking east towards Forest Ave. and the library.

What I called "campus expansion" above might more accurately be described as "campus creation." Before these construction projects, this neighborhood felt like a forgotten backwater, with old half-abandoned warehouses and huge parking lots. Now it actually feels like a safe and pleasant place to take a stroll. On the south side of Bedford, the University has built this beautiful wide esplanade between the street and the new campus buildings.
My favorite part about the new Bedford Street is how it buried a freeway-style slip lane at Forest Avenue under a new sidewalk. Before, the guy in the white shirt pictured above would have been road kill. Now he's got a safe place to wait and a shorter path to cross Forest Avenue to the supermarket or the Back Cove trail. Besides that, this area could well become a lively pedestrian plaza and gathering place for students once the library construction project is finished.

I've updated the new bike lanes in the Portland bike map in the sidebar as well.