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

Friday, June 26, 2009

Briefs for June's Green Streets Day

It's Green Streets Friday! Anyone walking, biking, carpooling, or taking transit today should sign in at portlandgreenstreets.org and reward yourself with freebies and discounts at participating local businesses.

Here are a few other things going on. Watch out for the whizzing bullets:

  • The Veranda Street bridge in East Deering is closed to cars, but not to bikes and pedestrians. The contractor has built a temporary bike/ped bridge, which is wheelchair accessible and wide enough for two people to pass abreast. Bicyclists should walk their bikes across, since the bridge's ramps make some tight turns.

  • Munjoy Hill residents are lobbying U Car Share for a new pod of vehicles for their neighborhood, according to the June Green Streets newsletter. Sarah Cushman reports that "If you live on the East End in Portland get your membership application fee waived for a limited time. Log in at www.ucarshare.com to sign up anduse this promotional code: MUNJOYHILL. If enough of East Enders join, the company will locate a car close by. For more information, contact Peter Alexander at 773-4606."

  • Last but not least, this editorial from today's Portland Press Herald, about some of the parking recommendations from the Peninsula Transit Study, is spot on. Its opening line: "Downtown real estate in Maine's largest city – its cultural and commercial center – is too valuable to be used to store cars." Read the whole thing, though - I couldn't have said it better myself.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

New indoor bike parking downtown

I had some fun at John Peverada's expense a couple of weeks ago, regarding his parking agency's fear of mopeds in the city's parking garages. But let's give him some kudos: Mr. Peverada's Spring Street Garage (the one next to the Civic Center) has just installed some of the city's first indoor, sheltered bicycle parking.

Downtown office workers now have a safe, sheltered place to park their bikes, just inside the garage's Free Street entrance:

Monday, June 22, 2009

Three concepts for Franklin Street

Check out franklinstreet.us for the three latest concept maps for what Franklin Street might look like in the future (pictured above is one concept, with a 4-lane boulevard north of Congress Street and a two-lane street between Congress and the waterfront).

The city's Franklin Street Redesign Committee will be reviewing these concepts this month and refining them for phase two of the project, which will make detailed analyses of each one and recommend a final design. You can leave comments for the committee on the franklinstreet.us website, or by e-mailing info [at] franklinstreet.us

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Downtown's changing geography

The great recession is having all sorts of impacts on our city's geography - what are we going to do with all the abandoned auto dealerships, for instance? - but one of the big changes to come was announced yesterday, when the new owners of the Portland Press Herald announced their plan to sell their building and the adjacent empty lot that used to house the printing presses to a New York developer.

The developer, a fellow named John Cacoulidis who's probably best known in Maine for his attempted tax-revolt hissy fits against the town of Cumberland, where he owns an offshore island, plans to renovate the Press Herald office building for office space and to redevelop the entire block bound by Pearl, Cumberland, Congress, and Myrtle with a new, 30-story tower. From this morning's Press Herald article:

His vision calls for a basement-level parking garage, with retail shops, a pharmacy and a bank on the first floor. He would top that with another eight levels of parking and build a hotel and office space above that.

The article also has this quote from Cacoulidis: "It will be a really classy building."

On that point, I have my doubts. Cacoulidis also owns a large chunk of land on South Portland's Spring Point. About eight years ago, this is the "really classy" building he proposed to build there:

You probably guessed "casino," right? Not quite: it would be a massive, hangar-sized convention hall - big enough to hold aircraft indoors was the gimmick, hence the plane being towed inside on the tongue-like ramp in the image above - capped by a plastic surgery hospital, capped by twin 640-foot towers with hotel rooms inside. I seem to recall Cacoulidis saying that famous people would want to recuperate for a few months in the luxury hotel upstairs after their plastic operations. I'm not sure why he wanted to disguise the whole complex so it would look exactly like a 1970s-era Las Vegas casino - maybe to throw off the paparazzi?

And oh yeah - it would have been connected by an aerial tram strung across the harbor to downtown Portland:

I guess this would have gone somewhere near the Portland Company complex. These images come via plans2pictures.com.

Anyhow, as classy as these buildings may be, I do have some serious concerns about whether Cacoulidis is capable of envisioning a building that will fit into the context of Congress Street. His grandiose plans for South Portland seem to expect that most people would have arrived at his building by air - note the preponderance of aircraft like helicopters in the images above. That probably sounds good to an elderly multi-millionaire like the developer, but Congress Street's buildings need to engage the street, and be designed with the expectation that most visitors and workers will be arriving by foot, on the sidewalk.

More practically, though, is the question of whether Cacoulidis is for real. In the past decade, he's made some big real estate purchases here. But in spite of his grandiose plans, he's never built anything. His property in South Portland is still empty, used only as an illegal dumping site from time to time. His newly-bought Press Herald office building is going to be empty soon - where's he going to find new tenants for that building, much less for a 30-story tower? I have my doubts about whether Cacoulidis can live long enough to see his vision turn into a reality.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

ACTION ALERT: Call Rep. Pingree to Save Pedestrian Access to Back Cove!

The Maine League of Young Voters has just sent out a new action alert with a focus on including pedestrian and bike access through the Exit 7 underpass, between Franklin Street and the Back Cove Park. This connection has been called for in city Comprehensive Plans since the 1980s, and is a high-priority "missing link" in Portland's trail and sidewalks network.

Unfortunately, the Maine DOT engineers in Augusta - people who rarely drive through this intersection, and have never walked through it - have decided, by bureaucratic fiat, to block pedestrian access at this location by widening the freeway off-ramps, allegedly for "safety" purposes.

To be fair, the Maine DOT is proposing some positive steps: adding a traffic light at the end of the northbound on-ramp (at the 'd' in Bayside in the birds-eye view below), for instance, would give pedestrians a safe place to cross the offramps. And, although it's probably not the best use for the Maine DOT's rapidly-dwindling funds, I have no beef with adding another lane to the northbound ramps, which wouldn't affect pedestrian access and would give cars a place to rest while they wait for the light.

But there's no need to add another lane to the southbound ramp (the one that curves along Back Cove), which is nearly 1/2 a mile long and never has traffic congestion issues. The Maine DOT keeps on citing an arbitrary prediction of 30% traffic growth, which will supposedly neccessitate the extra lane. But in the past 20 years, there's been no measureable growth in traffic here - roughly the same number of cars come through here today as in 1985.

So now that gas is headed towards $4 a gallon and GM and Chrysler are bankrupt - now Augusta expects thousands of additional cars to materialize here? That's baloney, but unless we make a lot more noise, this stale lunchmeat will be forced down our gullets, with a lot more traffic to go along with it, at a cost of $2 million to you, the taxpayer. Building the safe, well-lit sidewalk that the city actually needs, instead of an extraneous highway lane, would cut the project's bill in half.

Portlanders sent a lot of grassroots complaints about the Maine DOT's spendthrift bullheadedness this past winter. In fact, I'm pretty confident that Exit 7 may have been a tipping-point issue in the Legislature's ultimate decision not to raise the state's gas tax this summer, as a few key legislators were forced to ask themselves why they should divert tens of millions of dollars away from Mainers' disposable incomes, just to prop up the DOT's Circus of Whimsical Asphalt Fantasias.

But now, we need some top-down pressure on the DOT. The $2 million that Augusta plans to spend on this widening project would come from a federal earmark approved in 2005, at the behest of Rep. Tom Allen. Now that Rep. Chellie Pingree has taken over that seat, she's in the best position to hold the Maine DOT accountable. After all, what's the point in her fighting for funding in Washington if the Maine DOT is just going to piss it away on projects like this one?

So here's your chance to hold these renegade bureaucrats accountable for once: call Rep. Pingree today. She and her staff are friendly and want to hear from you, but more importantly, if we can muster a few dozen phone calls, our chances of getting a safe pedestrian connection to Back Cove and saving a cool $1 million in the process will be much, much better.

Here's a sample script that you might want to use as a guideline, but feel free to riff with personal stories about walking and biking in greater Portland, and the importance of this connection:

-- 207-774-5019 --

"Hello, this is a message for Chellie Pingree. My name is ________ and I live in [City, ME.] I'm calling to express concerns over how the Maine DOT is planning to spend our federal earmarks to expand the freeway ramps on Exit 7, without providing adequate pedestrian access between Bayside and Back Cove. Some elements of their plan - like adding a new traffic light and crosswalks - are moving in the right direction. But their plan to widen the southbound off-ramp, thus blocking pedestrian access to Back Cove Park, goes against our state's goals for energy independence, fiscal responsibility, and reducing pollution. Please encourage the Maine Department of Transportation to spend some of the money from the federal government on sustainable transportation alternatives for our future, not more highway!"

Also important: let us know if you called, either by sending a quick note to Katie at the League office in Portland or by leaving a comment here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


A reader of the Planet Money blog reports on an unintentionally funny economics question:
I recently bought the foreign service exam study guide since I am taking the test this Friday. The test consists of, among other things, basic economics questions. I was so amused by one of the sample questions that I just had to share:

All of the following are examples of United States products that would typically fail to be produced to optimal output without government intervention EXCEPT:

A. national defense products.
B. light provided by lighthouses.
C. new automobiles.
D. new highways.

And in the answer section:

C. This is the correct answer. Automobiles are not a public good. Optimal production of automobiles is related to the demand for them by individual consumers.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Bike Lanes on Ocean Ave - Important Neighborhood Meeting TONIGHT

Hey, wouldn't it be neat if Ocean Avenue looked less like the photos on the left, and more like the photos on the right?

If you'd like to have bike lanes on Ocean Avenue between Payson Park and Woodford's Corner, come out to tonight's neighborhood meeting at Cheverus High School's library, at 6:30 pm.

"This meeting will dictate the outcome of whether or not bicycle lanes get established on Ocean Ave between Forest and Washington," says Katherine Earley, Portland's city engineer.

I know it's raining, but that won't deter crankypants neighbors who think that extra on-street parking is more important than bikes. Buck up and show up!

If you're on Facebook, take a moment to rsvp here.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Vote Tomorrow for Portland's Charter Commission

Tomorrow (Tuesday) the City of Portland will hold an election to convene a new Charter Commission. The Commission will be responsible for reviewing and recommending changes to the city's governance structure - in effect, updating City Hall for the 21st century.

It might sound obscure, but this is an important election. City Hall needs to modernize, to become less bureaucratic and more entrepreneurial in how it gets things done. The city's status quo - taking eighteen months to decide whether or not to paint a few parking spots for scooters downtown, for instance, or four months (and counting) to decide whether or not to approve a new triple-decker on Munjoy Hill - is a burden to our taxpayers and to our economy. If our city is going to adapt to the new, carbon-constrained world, it needs to make these kinds of decisions much more quickly, and be less concerned about abandoning older, failed ways of doing business.

Luckily, this election has attracted some very talented candidates. I'd like to single one of them out for my first-ever blog endorsement: Jim Gooch, who is running for an at-large seat on the Commission.

I've worked with Jim thanks to his employment at the Trust for Public Land, where he's managing a regional open-space planning effort among about a dozen towns in the greater Bangor area. He doesn't have a specific platform or an agenda at this point, beyond creating a government that is more accountable and responsive in general, but is more focused on embracing a public process that considers a broad range of ideas and possibities. He's also a very smart guy, a former attorney with a degree from the Yale Law School, where he studied, among other things, governmental structure.

As for the other candidates, check out the League of Young Voters' election guide. I generally agree with their endorsements but would like to add special consideration for two candidates who didn't receive endorsements: Robert O'Brien (running for the District 2 seat, for the West End and Parkside) and Steven Scharf (running for the District 4 seat in East Deering). O'Brien has been a young and successfuly representative on the City's school committee and has also worked on several other progressive campaigns, including the Opportunity Maine initiative. His understanding of how the School Committee fits into the rest of the city's government would be valuable on the Commission. That said, he's running against another talented candidate, Dan Jenkins, a lifelong Portlander and a recent Muskie School graduate with some really innovative ideas. I haven't yet decided how I'll cast my ballot tomorrow, but I think that Portland would be well-served by either of these guys.

In District 4, I'd like to encourage people to vote for Steve Scharf. Steve has attended more meetings in City Hall than anyone else, and he knows how city government works - and doesn't work - better than almost anyone else in the city, including most City Councilors. He's a Republican with a strong libertarian streak, which will be an important perspective for a City that's trying to reform its government into something that's sleeker and more responsive (sure, I might not agree with his stances on abortion or the state's human welfare budget, but those things are out of bounds for a Charter Commission to deal with). And Steve's been an excellent and devoted defender of bicycle and pedestrian issues as a long-time member of the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, where it's been my pleasure to work with him.

So don't forget to vote in tomorrow's citywide election. Polls will open at 7 am and close at 8 pm.
Click here for a list of polling places.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Franklin Street Concepts

MRLD and Smart Mobility, the planning and traffic engineering consultants hired by the city to aid the Franklin Street Redesign Committee, have published two concepts for a new Franklin Street. Both feature extensive redevelopment opportunities, a restoration of Lincoln Park, restoration of cross-streets like Oxford, Federal, and Newbury, and downsizing Franklin to two lanes between Congress and Commercial Streets in the Old Port.

Hard copies of these images are available at City Hall. In the maps below, gray boxes indicate intersections with traffic signals; red areas indicate redevelopment opportunities, blue dotted lines represent new street connections.

Urban boulevard concept, with roundabouts at Cumberland, Congress, and Commercial. "The Urban Boulevard alternative has a landscaped median from Marginal Way to Congress, then transitions into a 2-lane urban street from Congress to Commercial. It includes a 2-way bike path on the north/east side of Franklin along its entire length from the Bayside Trail to the waterfront."

Multiway boulevard concept. "This alt. has a 6-lane multiway boulevard from Marginal Way to Oxford [4 lanes plus two low-speed parking/biking lanes on the outside]. At that point, it transitions into a 4-lane urban street, up the grade through Cumberland to Congress. From Congress to Marginal there would be a two lane urban street, with bike lanes."

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A New Blog for Sustainable Transportation

Corey Templeton, the Portland Daily Photo blogger, has started a handsome new blog called "Walk Around Portland." As he wrote last week in the inaugural post,

You are viewing the beginning of a new blog, focused on the car-free (is there supposed to be a hyphen there or not?) lifestyle of a native Portlander (myself). Do note, we are talking about the Portland on the East Coast, Portland, Maine. Although the title of the site is "Walk Around Portland," I will focus on other subjects besides pedestrian activity such as public transportation, bicycling, and public spaces among other topics.
The latest post is an in-depth look at Exit 6, the highway blockade between the USM campus, the grocery store, Deering Oaks Park, and downtown. I've already added it to my RSS subscriptions, and am looking forward to future posts!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Bureaucracy: The Expenditure of Massive Effort to Do Nothing

Blog buddy Turboglacier has been agitating lately for our wannabe-"sustainable" city to provide more, or at least some, legal parking for high-mileage scooters and mopeds downtown. He points out that his scooter "can get up to 60mph but gets roughly twice the gas milage of a Prius, three times that of a Civic, and five or six times that of a Hummer."

After eighteen months of planning and discussion, our lightning-quick City Hall has finally authorized legal scooter, moped, and motorcycle parking downtown (click the link to find out where).

But Turboglacier notes that "scooters will still be banned entirely from the covered garages here, rather than invited in for free as in London and Lancaster. Which really makes no sense if you're trying to have a city with fewer cars, less congestion, less pollution, easier parking, and less acreage dedicated to vehicle storage, and you would like people to opt for a scooter rather than a car even if it might rain today."

I didn't think that made sense, either, so I wrote to the City's parking manager, a fellow named John Peverada, to ask why four-wheeled motor vehicles were allowed inside city-owned garages, but two-wheeled motor vehicles are not. After all, the garages have a lot of unused nooks and crannies that are too small for a car, but big enough to fit a motorcycle, and allowing motorbikes in the garages would clearly be a more efficient allocation of a scarce public resource.

His reply:

We do not allow motorcycles to park in the garages for a variety of

1. If a motorcycle is parked on the sloped ramps and some one hits it,
and then it tips over, possibly hitting a vehicle, or the gas leaks out
causing another safety issue.

[ed. comment: so vehicles that might hit other vehicles, or leak gas, shouldn't be allowed in the city garages. OK, then, so by this logic, the city's garages should only allow electric cars, and just to make sure that no collisions happen, only one vehicle should be allowed inside at any given time. Sounds like parking downtown will soon be more of a hassle...]

2. Some of the garages have a protective membrane covering the concrete
deck and the kickstand of the motorcycles could damage it. The Elm St. &
Spring St. Garages have a coating on the roofs that would be compromised
by a kickstand on a hot day.

[ed. comment: actually, a 300 pound scooter, resting on three points of contact - two rubber tires and a kickstand - exerts less force per square inch on Mr. Peverada's membrane than the average woman walking in heels. And besides, John, the entire point is to park INDOORS, not on the roof.]

3. The way the loops need to be configured cause a safety hazard for
motorcycles. - If an automatic gate malfunctions and closes unexpectedly
on a car, damage is limited to the vehicle; however, the same event
could cause personal injury to the driver of a motorcycle.

[ed. comment: Here are some more 'safety hazards': the piss smell in the parking garage stairwell might attract a super-aggressive gang of Africanized feral cats. A light might burn out and create a surplus in the utilities budget. A woman's shoe heel might puncture the protective coating and cause spoilage.]

4. Motorcyclist can drive around the revenue control equipment, avoid
the parking charges.

[ed. comment: It probably would be a terrible thing if low-emission, small vehicles were able to park in this city for free. Only trucks in loading zones, cars with stickers, and people visiting after 6 pm can do that!]

Please let me know if you have any additional concerns.


My bracketed comments might seem snarky, but I actually really admire Mr. Peverada's response. Here's a bureaucrat who is obviously willing to dedicate considerable time and effort in dreaming up some exceptionally creative reasons for preserving the status quo. We obviously have a very imaginative fellow on the city's payroll.

Now, if only we could somehow harness this kind of talent towards solving the city's overbearing transportation costs and budget shortfalls...

Monday, June 1, 2009

GM is bankrupt; owes roughly $1 million in debt for every Hummer on the road

It is official: GM has entered bankruptcy, and is about to be nationalized by the American government.

In its bankruptcy filing this morning, the company revealed that it owes $172 billion to its creditors. According to GM sales figures (compiled here), that amounts to over $1.1 million in debt for every Hummer SUV sold since 2002. 

And can we get a shout-out for these flag-waving Champions of Labor, pictured in 2002 at a protest against higher fuel-efficiency standards? 

Speaking of "wasted resources," American and Canadian taxpayers have now sunk $60 billion in this industrial albatross. If it all goes according to the plan, United States taxpayers will soon own a 60% stake in the company; Canadian taxpayers will own an additional 12.5%.