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

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Revitalizing Cold War-Era Public Housing

La Tour Bois-le-Prêtre: before (left) and after renovation.

Yesterday's New York Times featured a completely inspiring story about a striking renovation of a public housing project in the working-class suburbs of Paris. The project added light-filled balconies and dramatically improved the old building's energy efficiency. But most importantly, it transformed what might have been a ruin destined for the wrecking ball into an attractive neighborhood landmark that continues to house hundreds of households comfortably and affordably. It's a great story, and I encourage you to read the whole thing here.

I recently joined the board of the Portland Housing Authority, so this story immediately brought to mind another very similar building we have right here in Portland. Franklin Towers, on the corner of Cumberland and Franklin, is the tallest building in the city, and home to 200 low-income, elderly or disabled households.

Image from Portland Monthly.

Just like La Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, it is 16 stories tall, was built in the brutalist-modern style of 1960s civic architecture, and is facing serious maintenance issues after more than half a century in service. The city will soon have to decide whether to spend millions of dollars renovating Franklin Towers, or nearly as much money to tear it down and leave hundreds of the city's most vulnerable residents scrambling for a place to live.

Franklin Street is going to go through some major changes in the coming years. So what if we did something similar to Franklin Towers? Inspired by La Tour Bois-le-Prêtre, here's my idea:

  • Build a new mixed-use podium building on what is currently the front lawn of Franklin Towers. The ground floor could be leased as retail space, which would provide additional conveniences for residents, while the second floor could hold an additional 10-12 new senior housing apartments.
  • Consolidate the parking area in the back of the building (which currently gobbles up 2/3 of the site), and use the leftover space to build 7 new triple-decker townhouses along Franklin Street, each with 2 studio apartments for seniors on the handicapped-accessible ground level, and 2 family-sized mixed-income apartments on the upper levels, for 28 new units in all.
  • Renovate the existing tower extensively, focusing on energy-efficient improvements.
  • Get the money to finance all these improvements by leasing the top three floors of apartments at market rates as luxury housing. The upper floors have some of the best views in the city, and people will be willing to pay to enjoy them; the displaced residents will be rewarded with brand-new apartments in the new construction outlined above. This measure would help fund more housing on the site while also transforming Franklin Towers into a more egalitarian, mixed-income community.

Here's a sketch of what it might look like:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Maine Pedicab: Now Hiring

A national pedicab business is about to open a franchise in Portland, Maine. Due to various city regulations, the pedicabs will run on a "tips-only" fare basis, but if you like tourists, and tourists like you, and if you have strong legs, and if you're looking for a job with flexible hours, it could be a decent way to make money.

The co-owner, whom I met, tells me that he himself made his living as a pedicab driver for several summers when the business was just getting started in Boston — and in the seven years since then the business has expanded to Seattle, Newport, and San Francisco.

If you're interested, leave a comment with your email address and I'll send you more details about how to apply. They're aiming to get started by April 5th, in time for First Friday.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

This was a nice place, once.

Here's a good example of a successful public space. It's a view of Lincoln Park, as it was sometime near the beginning of the 20th century, from the Library of Congress archives (hat tip to Corey on the ArchBoston forum):

I suspect that this photo is looking east from a vantage point near the corner of Congress and Pearl Streets. But it's hard to tell, since every single one of the stately, mansard-roofed houses in this picture has been demolished, and a third of the park was bulldozed to give Franklin Street arterial a wide, empty median that's of no use to anybody.

TONIGHT: Bike/Ped Comprehensive Plan hearing

The public forum on Portland's Bike and Pedestrian Plan is happening tonight, at 6:30 pm, in the rehearsal hall of Merrill Auditorium. The entrance is on Myrtle Street near the corner of Cumberland Avenue (if you're facing the front of City Hall, turn right, go around the corner, pass the main entrance of Merrill Auditorium, and take the next doorway to the rehearsal hall).

  • What: City of Portland Pedestrian and Bicycle Component of the Comprehensive Plan
  • When: Wednesday, March 14, 2012, 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm
  • Where: Merrill Auditorium Rehearsal Hall, Myrtle Street (behind City Hall), Portland

I haven't seen the plan myself, yet, but these are the general concepts. It's good stuff, and I'm looking forward to hearing more about it. See you there.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bike/Ped Plan Public Forum Postponed

Due to the snowstorm, tonight's public forum on Portland's Bike and Pedestrian Plan has been postponed to Wednesday the 14th.

There was a nice story about the plan in today's Portland Daily Sun, though. Read it here.

  • What: City of Portland Pedestrian and Bicycle Component of the Comprehensive Plan
  • When: Wednesday, March 14, 2012, 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm
  • Where: Merrill Auditorium Rehearsal Hall, Myrtle Street (behind City Hall), Portland