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

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


For the past few weeks, I've been walking past a new triple-decker under construction on Cumberland Avenue, on the western slope of Munjoy Hill, designed by Kaplan Thompson Architects.

Today I learned that it's aspiring towards "Passive House" energy efficiency standards: "no fossil fuels will be needed for electricity, a/c or heating," according to the developers' facebook page, and it's being built "at a cost comparable to a traditional building." [edit - I've since learned that, although the building is borrowing some "passive house" concepts, it won't be certified under the strict Passive House standards.]

There's a lot more to like about this building, though: it's being built in the heart of the city, within easy walking distance of neighborhood groceries, downtown offices, and bus lines. It takes advantage of the city's newly-reduced parking requirements for downtown housing (more on that below, though). It fits in well with its neighborhood, as a modern update to the familiar triple-decker style. And it will bring in three more households to the neighborhood - which means more customers for local businesses, more eyes on the street looking out for their neighbors, and three fewer ranch houses chomping up forest and farmland in the suburbs.

In the past few years, City Hall has loosened its regulations considerably to make this kind of development possible. In the 1990s, for instance, this building would have been illegal: Portland's zoning code actually required developers to build ranch-style houses with suburb-sized front lawns in neighborhoods like Munjoy Hill (there'a a bizarre relic of this era on Atlantic Street). In 2008, the City reduced its residential parking requirements so that new housing wouldn't be required to dedicate more space to cars than to humans. This building takes advantage of that revision - the old zoning code would have required 2 parking spots for each unit, which wouldn't have left any room on the small lot for an actual building.

This project still sets aside space for 3 cars - which is far more parking than Portland's historic triple-decker buildings provide. In such a centralized location, it's highly probable that some potential buyers won't need a parking spot at all. But because the builders were forced to provide them, two things will happen: first, the building as a whole will be more expensive to build, and less affordable for buyers. And second, the homebuyers who are interested are more likely to own cars (since parking is included), which means that the neighborhood will have more car traffic than it otherwise would.

The developers will also lose potential customers (the ones who don't own cars and aren't willing to pay extra for a parking space they don't need), which means that building this building, and others like it, will be more financially risky.

So while Portland's parking requirements are less stupid than they used to be, the fact that we still have them at all means that City Hall is still mandating less affordable housing, less development, fewer customers for local businesses, and more traffic - contrary to all of our city's stated goals.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Action-packed agenda for tonight's City Council Transportation Committee meeting

UPDATE: due to the snowstorm, this meeting has been cancelled.

The agenda items will be discussed in the February 15th meeting instead - save the date.

Tonight's City Council Transportation Committee meeting - this afternoon at 5:30 PM in City Hall - is going to be packed with things you'll be interested in.
  • Bruce Hyman and the Public Services Dept. will be proposing a workplan for an update to the city's Technical and Design standards to incorporate a "Complete Streets" policy for city streets by 2012;
  • Agents from the Maine Turnpike Authority will be there to talk about why they want to spend tens of millions of dollars on widening the freeway along the western edge of Portland (you might consider coming to ask them to provide better regional bus and commuter rail service instead for a fraction of the price)
  • Folks from the Amtrak Downeaster will discuss plans for future rail service downtown, including a possible downtown train station.
You can find more details on each of these agenda items on the Committee's webpage. Should be interesting - I'm hoping to be there, and hope I'll have some company.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Global Warming Bites the Wheels That Feed It

Massive floods in Australia this week as drenching rains follow hard on the heels of a decade-long drought known locally as "the Big Dry".

"Scientists predict such extreme weather events will increase both in intensity and frequency as the planet warms."

And so, here's the latest hit video from YouTube, in which an "inland tsunami" in the Queensland town of Toowoomba clears out the parking lot of a suburban office building.

Global warming bites the wheels that feed it:

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Winter Biking

Here's a blog post about a fellow in Indiana who biked his toddler to daycare this morning in 15 degree weather. With proper clothing, the kid arrived warm and toasty. "I’d rather stay warm with a bit of extra clothing than to wear a 4,000 lb car for a short crosstown trip," writes the author. "I mean, when the primary reason you take a car on trip is a feature associated with clothing— like keeping you warm— then you are primarily wearing the car, right?"

People often ask me amazed questions about biking in the winter, like it's a special feat of endurance. I like to remind them that many other people pay $50 a day to go skiing in even colder conditions in the mountains - and they frequently take their kids with them, too.

Here's a winter biking gear graphic from the Toronto Star that's been making the rounds recently:

Personally, I think this much gear is a bit over the top, and silly-looking to boot (I really don't get the spandex - this guy's lugging 30 pounds of extra gear and he's worried about his wind resistance?). I typically wear the same clothes I wear at the office, plus an extra sweater and a hooded jacket to cover my ears and neck. Maybe I'd want a balaclava or facemask if I didn't have facial hair, but I've survived without one so far. It's winter - I'll be OK if parts of my face get cold.

On the few days of the year when there's accumulating snow on the streets, I could dig out my ski goggles and shell out a hundred bucks for studded tires. Or I could just take the bus. So far I've opted for the latter.

Winter biking does require a lot more diligence with bike maintenance and cleaning of your chains, brakes, and cables, with all the salt and slushy grime that's on the roads. In my opinion, that's a much bigger hassle than the cold.

Local blogger Shea Gunther has a good series of posts about winter biking in Portland on his Mother Nature Network blog.