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

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Introducing the Hubway

Here's one more reason to leave your car behind on trips to Boston: the city is getting ready to launch its Hubway bike-sharing system this summer, with 600 bikes available for cheap hourly rates all across the city.

Both North and South Stations (the arrival points for the Downeaster and Concord Coach, respectively) will have on-site stations where travellers can pick up a bike. You'll need to buy a membership, and , but if you return your bike to another station within 30 minutes, the ride is free.

Before you go, download the Spotcycle app to find stations and available bikes with your phone.

Also: a group of folks is looking into doing something similar, on a smaller scale, here in the city of Portland.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Some New Energy on Middle Street, and Too Much Parking in Falmouth

Developers are giving some attention to the western stretch of Middle Street, with an eye towards making the area around the 1970s-era Canal Plaza complex more lively and pedestrian-friendly.

First up: the new owners of the Canal Plaza complex and one of their tenants, the new Canal 5 Studio architecture firm, are looking into ways to make their buildings and its central plaza more engaging to the street, and more successful as a public space. Mainebiz ran a preliminary sketch yesterday on their website (at left), and also revealed that the owners are also considering increasing their investment in the property by adding additional floors to two of the complex's office buildings.

The new landlord, Tim Soley of East Brown Cow, bought these buildings a couple years ago, in the depths of the recession, at a low price that assumed that the ground level would continue to be leased as offices. But by adding some street-level interest and attracting more foot traffic, the new owners are clearly looking to boost their revenues substantially by charging Old Port rents in new ground-level retail spaces. If it succeeds, more tourists will get lured up to explore Monument Square and the Arts District. It's a great example of how pedestrian-friendly development that enhances public spaces can be extremely lucrative to developers and neighborhoods.

I'd also like to put it on the record that I'm quite fond of the Canal Bank buildings - they're one of the rare positive examples of 1970s-era modernism that we have in the city (the only other one that comes to mind is the Portland Public Library). I particularly like the window pattern on the tallest building at the rear of the plaza, which, despite its height, has a stately and subdued quality to it (see Corey Templeton's photo at right, from his Portland Daily Photo blog). I hope that the new plaza renovations and additions will respect and enhance the rest of the complex's classic modern architecture.

Also on Middle Street, the old Canal Bank building at 188 Middle (right next door to the Canal Plaza complex) has finally found a retail tenant in the street-level space that was formerly home to the Pavilion function hall. That tenant is Urban Outfitters, catnip to suburban kids with high credit limits and a vanguard in high-rent shopping districts like Boston's Newbury Street.

I have mixed feelings about this. While I'm glad that Middle Street is on the up and up, and successfully attracting businesses and their customers away from the blasted Maine Mall, I'm also wary that our city's downtown area could eventually become a sterile, outdoor copy of the blasted Maine Mall - much like Boston's Newbury Street is today.

To put it another way, maybe Urban Outfitters will entice those Falmouth brats to stop loitering in Post Office Park - or maybe it'll just entice increasing hordes of upper-middle-class twits to take over the entire city. We talk about affordable housing frequently - maybe it's time to start talking about the possibility of affordable retail space in downtown Portland, before we get to the point where new businesses can't afford to start up here.

And speaking of twits from Falmouth, that town's planners are now negotiating an expansion of the Portland area's closest Walmart. A story about a suburb's sad progress towards increasing misery and ugliness is generally not worth mentioning here, but this little bit from the Falmouth Forecaster's news report struck me as funny:

"Walmart has also applied for a waiver to build only 569 parking spaces, instead of the 621 [roughly 6 acres' worth - ed] that would be required, citing 'historic under-utilization of the parking lot.' "

Hey Falmouth Town Planner Theo Holtwijk: if the world's largest owner of parking lots by acreage thinks that your town's parking requirements are too high, it just might time to revisit your zoning codes.