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.


turbo said...

"far more parking than Portland's historic triple-decker buildings provide"

Yeah, but back in those historic days, there were trolley lines to commute on (ELECTRIC trolleys, I believe!)

Speaking of which, I'm hoping that you'll someday research and write a post about the disappeared trolley line system. Where did they go? How often did they run? How many people rode on them? What happened? (I guess I know the answer to the last question: cars.)

Corey Templeton said...

There is a really similar suburban ranch like that one on Atlantic Street that is near the top of Waterville Street. Good call about the parking requirements.