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

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mandatory parking laws force a nonprofit affordable housing agency to waste money on crappy architecture that makes Portland's streets more dangerous

Tonight, Portland's planning board will consider Avesta Housing's application to build a new apartment building on the corner of Pearl and Lancaster Streets in Portland's Bayside neighborhood - catty-corner from the Whole Foods supermarket, and adjacent to the mixed-income "Pearl Place" apartment complex that Avesta built back in 2006-2007:

Avesta has built lots of great housing for middle- and low-income Portlanders in the past decade, and what they're proposing for this lot is pretty great: two five-story buildings containing 54 apartments, within easy walking distance of two big grocery stores, all of Portland's bus lines, and thousands of downtown jobs. It sounds like a great development that should enrich the neighborhood and add some life to Bayside's streets - until you look at it from the perspective of someone who walks along Bayside's streets.

The walkable, liveable community being proposed only exists ten feet above the sidewalks, on the top four stories of the proposed buildings. The ground level is devoted entirely to a dark, unwelcoming garage, some mechanical rooms, and a few fire exits. Here's the ground floor plan:

According to the rule of thumb that each structured parking space costs roughly $20,000 to build, the extra floor of parking with 28 spots is going to add approximately half a million dollars to the project's price tag. That's $500,000 being sucked out of Maine's affordable housing budget in order to pay for more parking in a neighborhood that already has more than it can use. WTF?

The ground-floor parking also turns what could have been a decent-looking building into an ugly, unwelcoming fortress. Here's a detail of the corner entrance on Lancaster Street:

As you can see, pedestrians walking along Lancaster Street to Whole Foods will enjoy looking at a blank brick wall punctuated by a long, foreboding staircase. Who needs windows? Some ventilation grates add some visual interest - in real life they'll probably add a nice bouquet of exhaust fumes for passerby to enjoy. There's even a cute little "mugger's nook" behind the stairs. If you look carefully in this the rendering you can see someone in a red sweatshirt losing their wallet.

The image is courtesy of PDT Architects, although it's hard to believe they'd want their names on it. But even though I think PDT could have done better at mitigating the disaster of the ground-floor parking garage - some windows would have been a start - they don't deserve the brunt of blame for this.

The lousy design was driven by stupid zoning rules - and an attitude among city planners that affordable housing developers ought to set aside ridiculous amounts of scarce funds to subsidize the storage of automobiles.

The ground-level garage is also ridiculous in the context of the neighborhood around it. Parking is allowed on Lancaster Street, but you will never see a car parked there. Part of the reason for that is the Press Herald-owned parking garage right next door to this site. It's somewhat full during workdays, but begins emptying out around 4 pm - right around the time apartment-dwellers start heading home from work. If Pearl Place residents absolutely need a car to get to work, there are literally hundreds of places for them to park overnight on this very same city block. We don't need to spend half a million dollars for 28 more parking spaces.

Here's the good news: Portland's planning board has the ability to scale back the number of parking spaces required. Just taking out two parking spaces from the project could allow Avesta to move the "community room" down from the second floor to the ground floor, add some life to the building's street level, and free up space for one more affordable apartment above.

The neighborhood won't notice if two parking spaces come or go in this development. But it will notice the difference between a dark, unwelcoming parking garage and a building that actually engages the neighborhood and is designed for people. The planning board should demand the latter when it meets tonight.

Update: as noted in the comments, Patrick Venne also wrote about some of these same issues on his Mainely Urban blog yesterday. Here's his take on the matter.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The City of Portland might spend $10,000 to tear out this crosswalk.

Grumpy motorists are lobbying the City of Portland to spend $10,000 to tear out this crosswalk on Woodford Street. Apparently, they are upset that the traffic island, functioning exactly as it's intended to, is impeding their ability to drive 50 miles per hour through the residential neighborhood between Rosemont Corner and Stevens Avenue.

View Larger Map

The people I know who actually live and walk through this neighborhood aren't pleased with this idea. Woodford is a busy street, and this crossing is well-used by kids walking to Longfellow Elementary and Deering High School. There's a rumor that the anti-crosswalk people are worried about drunk drivers hitting the island and flipping over onto someone's front lawn. But without this island, that same drunk driver would be allowed to accellerate unimpeded until s/he hits something - or someone - else at a much more dangerous speed.

In an era of deep budget cuts, it's hard to believe that the City is taking these complaints seriously - but they are. So if you object to your tax dollars being used to make the City's streets even less safe, get in touch with your City Councilors and also call (874-8493) or write the Department of Public Services.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Love Walking and Cycling? Come to Tonight's Bike/Ped Committee Meeting

It's a very romantic Bike/Pededestrian Advisory Committee Meeting tonight, starting at 5:30 pm in Room 209 (upstairs) of City Hall:

  • An update on Portland's first proposed "Neighborhood Byway" - a traffic-calmed route that would prioritize bikes and walkers on neighborhood streets between Deering Center and Sagamore Village

  • A call to action regarding grumpy drivers' efforts to remove a traffic calming median island on Woodford Street

  • Ideas for a bike route along outer Congress Street, from Libbytown to the Airport

  • Updates from Augusta (including the status of the Maine Alliance for Sustainable Transportation's ZOOM bus legislation)

We'll adjourn by 6:30 pm. See you there!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Q: How do you deal with a corrupt highway bureaucracy?

The Maine Turnpork Authority is getting lots of ink in Maine's newspapers lately:

  • A recent audit by a state watchdog agency discovered that the Turnpork Authority's management burned through a $1.1 food and entertainment tab over a five-year period to 2009. Expenses included limo rides, alcoholic beverages, an "in-room movies" at hotels (and it shouldn't take too much imagination to intuit what a lonely highway engineers are ordering from the Pay Per View channel). Source: Susan Cover of MaineToday Media.

  • The same audit revealed a disconcerting conflict of interest between the Authority and HNTB, the massive engineering firm it pays to "represent bondholder interests." The only problem is, HNTB and its employees also benefit from millions of dollars' worth of Turnpike contracts. Having HNTB represent "bondholder interest" - the interests of people who lend money to the Turnpike - is like asking a compulsive gambler to manage your household finances. Source: Maine Office of Program Effectiveness and Government Oversight.

  • And today, conservative watchdogs at the Maine Heritage Policy Center are raising the alarm that "Total payroll for the agency’s 470 employees grew from $16.8 million in 1998 to $28.8 million in 2010," a 72 percent increase. Mere mortals working in the private sector received payroll increases of 46% over the same time period. Your toll dollars at work! [sources: Bangor Daily News, MPBN]

  • And industry booster Toll Roads News is calling the Turnpork Authority's plan to build a new $50 million tollbooth "improbable" and "by now almost certainly a non-starter." Ouch!
So: how do you deal with a corrupt highway bureaucracy?

You take away their money and reallocate it to efficient, smart growth-oriented commuter transit services. A bill making its way through the State House right now would do that - and it's got bipartisan support, thanks to the bill's strong merits in fiscal responsibility. Both parties can agree that its better to spend $10 million on a regionwide bus service than to spend $100 million on highway widenings we don't really need.

Call your legislators in the State House Transportation Committee and ask them to support the ZOOM bill, as well as a more accountable Maine Turnpike Authority.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Commenters' Questions

A few questions have cropped up recently in the comments section, and I'll do my best to answer them here:

[From Anonymous] A woman who lives near my house routinely parks her car in a driveway, but the car completely blocks the sidewalk. As a pedestrian, today, I literally had to walk through a snowbank to continue on my way around her car (SUV). I have asked her to keep her car off the sidewalk, but she basically flipped me off. Who is legally correct here? Who owns the sidewalk?

While the property owner technically "owns" the land under the sidewalk, it's a public right of way that must be kept clear. If you would like to report an uncleared sidewalk, call Portland's Inspections Department at 874-8793, or citysidewalks@portlandmaine.gov. Use the same number for neighbors who don't shovel.

You could also encourage her to take a long drive tomorrow in the snow - with an SUV, she'll be more likely than others to get it stuck in a snowbank along the side of the freeway, opening up your sidewalk for a while.

[From Turbo]: "I'd been wondering whether you were biking to work on these days when the Rt. 1 shoulder is under multiple inches of grimy snow. I've been taking the bus myself most days-- probably passing you en route. I have to say, though, I find the bus depressing. I spend most of the ride trying to think of ways to make it a more appealing experience."

In general, I'll take the bus too if there's slush on the roads - getting damp salt on my bike and clothing is not much fun. I'll admit it's been making me a little stir crazy, though.

I have ridden in the last couple of days, since the roads are generally dry. I rode in to work this morning as well, but with the snow flying outside, I'll probably make use of METRO's bike racks on my way home.

When the shoulders are icy, I take the middle of the lane, which is perfectly legal and arguably makes a cyclist even safer by virtue of improved visibility (I'm in motorists' direct line of sight, instead of in their peripheral vision). If cars want to pass me, they switch lanes - just as they would do with any other slower vehicle. Winter tends to make people slow down on the roads anyhow, so it's not much of a problem to keep up.

As far as making the bus ride less depressing, I'd say it's a damned shame that METRO plasters its buses with advertisements that keep us from looking out the windows. The part of Route 7 that I ride might be one of the most scenic bus routes anywhere, with abundant views of Back Cove, the Presumpscot River, and Casco Bay's islands - often with sunrises and sunsets at this time of year to boot. Of course, I get off before the same bus enters the cluster of strip malls around Route One, also known as Falmouth's Lower Intestinal District.

I usually bring a book or a magazine, or just rest my eyes for a few minutes. In the past few years I've seen a lot more people sending emails or web browsing with smartphones. Reading or writing are things you just can't do in a driver's seat. I'll take a dingy bus and a good magazine article over the cushiest Lexus any day.