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

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Public Space meets Work Space in Bramhall Square

Bramhall Square is a neglected public space on the West End that's had a hard time living up to its potential. It has a lot going for it: it occupies a prominent place at the junction of several neighborhood streets, and is a kind of gateway to the historic West End for anyone coming into town from the west. It's also a short walk away from the Maine Medical Center, the city's largest employer and a 24-hour hub of activity.

But it also has serious shortcomings. A dense thicket of trees and 70s-vintage park benches make the Square feel dark and neglected. Even though there are lots of historic buildings in the area, the Square's pedestrian space, along the eastern edge of the square, is defined by squat, uninteresting buildings. Things were a lot better three years ago, when Percy's Cycles provided a public gathering spot for people who could drop in and learn a few things about bike repair, and Binga's Wingas next door was a boisterous neighborhood pub. But Percy moved out (he's just partnered up to start a new shop on Parris Street) and Binga's burned down. For the past couple of years, then, the Square's been characterized by a string of marginal businesses and this burned-out eyesore:

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Now, independent developer Peter Bass is putting together a creative new project that would replace the fire-damaged Binga's Wingas building with something that could go a long way towards re-invigorating the Square with new life.

Above: a sketch plan of the proposal from the City's Historic Preservation Board, by Archetype Architects. Bramhall Square is to the left.

Bass is proposing Portland's first office building that would be solely dedicated to "coworking" - shared workspace for freelancers, consultants, and other individuals who need an alternative to working from home. Users would save on overhead costs by sharing things like a conference room, kitchen, wifi, and office equipment, and benefit from an increase in social and professional interactions.

The Cooltown Studios blog has written a lot about coworking projects elsewhere, and how buildings like these can cultivate a city's creative economy by giving freelancers and other workers a more formal, affordable, and collaborative place to do their work.

By replacing an empty eyesore with a dynamic working space - one where workers are likely, on nice days, to bring their flexible, wireless offices outside into the Square - Bass's proposal could also do a lot to bring life and vibrancy back into Bramhall Square.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Important vote Monday to determine the fate of "Fee In Lieu of Parking"

Next Monday's City Council meeting - at 7 pm on the 21st, in the Council chambers on the 2nd floor of City Hall - will decide the outcome of the Peninsula Transit Study's proposed "Fee In Lieu of Parking" concept.

Generally speaking, this ordinance would give developers of new buildings on the Portland peninsula an alternative to opt out of the city's parking requirements by paying into a new "Sustainable Transportation Fund" instead. This fee would be $10,000 per space. So, for instance, a new office building that would otherwise require 20 off-street parking spaces could instead pay $200,000 into the Sustainable Transportation Fund; or, alternatively, build only 10 parking spaces and pay $100,000 into the Fund. The incentive to do so comes from the fact that $10,000 per space is substantially less than the amount of money it would take to build a parking garage, and in many cases, it will also be more valuable for a developer to use their real estate for purposes other than parking.

The net result of this should be that Portland will reduce the costs of development while also diverting private developers' investments away from car parking, and towards sustainable transportation. Or, even more simply: fewer parking lots, more jobs and housing, better transit, and safer streets.

The net result of this should be that Portland will reduce the costs of development while also diverting private developers' investments away from car parking, and towards sustainable transportation. Or, even more simply: fewer parking lots, and more buildings, better transit, and safer streets. These funds could be used for sidewalks, transit facilities, trails - all the good stuff we want more of. The ordinance currently states that the funds could also be used for shared parking garages, and that's something we might want to press the Council to amend. But it's not a dealbreaker - the use of the Fund will be determined annually in public hearings, and as long as we continue to hold elected officials accountable, we can make sure that the money is spent wisely on sustainable transportation.

To give you a rough idea of how powerful this might be: the City has proposed a new 400-car garage for the empty lots along Somerset Street in Bayside, which could cost well over $8 million. But suppose a developer comes along who wants to build on the empty lots down there without paying that much for parking, and having most employees come in on on the new trail or by transit instead.

Instead of giving over an entire city block to a huge garage, they might choose to build a much smaller 100-car garage on a smaller footprint for about $2 million, build more office space where the parking would have gone, and then pay $3 million (that's 300 times $10,000) into the Sustainable Transportation Fund in lieu of parking.

$3 million is a lot of money. It would be enough to buy 4 new buses for METRO and potentially establish a new bus route to deliver employees into Bayside, for instance. Or to build (with matching funds from the state and federal governments) a substantial part of the new Franklin Street. Or pay for a year's worth of commuter rail services between Portland, Brunswick, and Biddeford. It's serious money for the kinds of projects we'd like to see happen here.

So, at the end of the day, this hypothetical Bayside situation would yield:
  • more land in Bayside dedicated to functional living and workspace, instead of parking;
  • 300 fewer cars coming into the peninsula every day;
  • $3 million for safer streets and/or new transit infrastructure;
  • 300 more transit riders/walkers/cyclists;
  • the developer saves $3 million by building a smaller garage and has more space to rent out as well;
  • lower rents for the developer's tenants - i.e., Portland businesses and households.
We should get a big turnout on Monday night from the city's bike/ped community, from transit supporters, from Portland Trails, from environmentalists, business people, affordable housing activists - EVERYONE - to show the City Council that their voters support this idea. I'd like to recruit at least ten people from the Bike/Ped Committee alone. The good news is that this vote is near the beginning of the evening's agenda, which means that it won't be a late night - we might even be out of there by 8 PM. And maybe celebrate with a frosty pint afterwards.

Please comment below if you think you can be there, so I can have a rough idea of turnout. If you can't be there, please consider writing to our Councilors to let them know you support the idea. Here's their contact information.

You can read the Council's evening agenda and its associated backup material here. The proposed Fee in Lieu ordinance packet begins on page 70 of that PDF.

Thanks, everyone!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Over the past couple of months, Portland's Planning Board has received a slow but steady stream of significant development proposals.

The Cumberland Cold Storage warehouse on Portland's waterfront, currently used for self-storage with bricked-in windows, could soon become offices for a law firm (funded with a controversial tax break granted when the lawyers threatened to move across the river), along with ground-level space reserved (for the time being) for marine businesses.

On Congress Street, Avesta Housing is proposing to build a handsome apartment building that would contain 37 efficiency apartments, marketed towards single, creative-economy workers. The building would only have 8 parking spaces for cars (which is probably still too much for a site near half-vacant public garages and abundant bus services right around the corner), 8 spaces for scooters or motorcycles, and 24 sheltered bike racks on the ground floor, in addition to a residential lobby and art gallery space. The building would replace a 33-space parking lot with living space for 37 new downtown residents, most of whom will probably walk or use transit the majority of the time.

And, down on Franklin Street, the old Jordan's Meats factory has been cleared away to make room for a new six-story hotel, condo, and restaurant complex, which has been approved and is already under construction. The eastern half of the block will be a parking lot for the time being, but the site has been used only for leased parking for the past five years anyhow, and the project's developers seem keen to put build something else on the rest of the site soon.

Set aside for a moment questions about the wisdom of spending public subsidies on lawyers who pull six figures, and the mysteriousness of how the Jordan's Meats building burned and collapsed before the construction company had a chance to begin the expensive asbestos removal process (the Fire Marshall declined to investigate).

In the end, these new buildings will all add new jobs and residences to Portland's downtown neighborhoods, contribute to our city's walkable streets with quality architecture and active street-level facades, and convert empty lots and underutilized buildings into new engines for the local economy.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Bike Coalition of Maine benefit dinner - tonight at Flatbread in Portland

Allison Vogt from the Bike Coalition of Maine writes: "I hope you'll all come out for pizza and beer in support of better bicycling tonight (Tuesday) at Flatbreads from 5 to 9. It will be a great chance to socialize among greater Portland cyclists!"

See you there!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Old in Oldsmobile

Via AdAge, new demographic data confirms that spending two hours every day stuck behind a steering wheel is not what the kids these days are into:

"In 1978, nearly half of 16-year-olds and three-quarters of 17-year-olds in the U.S. had their driver's licenses, according to Department of Transportation data. By 2008, the most recent year data was available, only 31% of 16-year-olds and 49% of 17-year-olds had licenses, with the decline accelerating rapidly since 1998. Of course, many states have raised the minimum age for driver's licenses or tightened restrictions; still, the downward trend holds true for 18- and 19-year-olds as well (see chart) and those in their 20s."

That's not all - the share of total miles driven is increasingly skewing towards older demographics as well. "The share of automobile miles driven by people aged 21 to 30 in the U.S. fell to 13.7% in 2009 from 18.3% in 2001 and 20.8% in 1995, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration's National Household Travel Survey released earlier this year." This while the total number of American 20-somethings increased, growing from 13.3% to 13.9% of the American population.

In other words, there's a growing generation gap in terms of total miles driven. Older folks are more likely to drive longer distances, while younger people generally make shorter trips in cars, if they drive at all.

AdAge blames the Internet, as well as changing ideas about worker productivity. "Time becomes really valuable to them," he said. "You can work on a train. You can't work in a car. And the difference is two to three hours a day, or about 25% of one's productive time," says William Draves, a higher-education consultant.

The entire article is worth a read - here's the link.

It's funny. As older folks draw closer to the ends of their lives, you'd think they'd be less interested in wasting a quarter of their dwindling lifetimes stuck behind a steering wheel. But that's just my insensitive, young-worker perspective. It's a beautiful day, and I'm off to take a pleasant bike ride back home.

Monday, June 7, 2010

How Portland Can Fight the Oil Spill

AP photo by Charlie Riedel, from Boston.com's Big Picture blog

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is the inevitable product of a culture that is disastrously addicted to oil. BP isn't simply a corporate monster; it's our dealer. Anyone who's pays $3 a gallon for their gasoline is complicit with the multi-trillion dollar industry that works to squeeze oil from tens of thousands of wells deep under the waters of the Gulf.

Here's the good news: we're not by any means helpless. We don't need to take our toothbrushes to Louisiana to clean up this mess: we need to stop buying and burning so much oil every day.

Jonathan Hiskes, in a recent post on Grist, has offered up "10 Ways Cities and Towns Can Kick the Offshore-Oil Habit." Here's a sampling, in a shortened format:

  • Build complete streets, roads that include sidewalks, and are safe to walk across and bike along;
  • Build more development near public transit;
  • Let the market lead - consumer demand for walkable, transit-oriented development is on the rise, but Portland needs to do more to make sure that local laws and ordinances don't prohibit such smart-growth development;
  • Demand density: along the same lines, locals should fight the "not-in-my-backyard" attitudes that often thwart smart development, and welcome new neighbors in close-in neighborhoods so that more people can enjoy the benefits of car-free living;
  • Cut parking, which wastes valuable space, invites more traffic congestion, and reduces tax revenues, all in the service of subsidizing gasoline sales;
  • Grant free parking for carsharing vehicles - something that Portland has already done on a temporary basis to lure UCar Share.
These are all things that we can absolutely do on the local level, right here in Portland, and in surrounding communities. We even have a great plan in place (the Portland Peninsula Transit Study) to make many of these things happen. The question is, do our City Councilors and planners have the will and the diligence to help our city gain independence from the filthy oil companies?

Or will we continue to export millions of dollars out of our local economy to pay companies like BP?