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

Monday, October 29, 2012

Good Riddance, Joe Lewis; Planning Board Has Openings for Better Planners

Joe Lewis, the chair of the Portland Planning Board since 2008 and a big fan of building subsidized parking at the expense of affordable housing, has tendered his resignation (as the Bangor Daily News reports, Lewis was apparently more ashamed of having his sex life made public than he was about forcing nonprofit housing agencies to spend millions of dollars on unneeded parking garages over the past four years).

There's actually a total of four positions on the Planning Board opening up next month. This is a great opportunity to create a more progressive Board, and in turn, a more sustainable approach to zoning and land use in the City of Portland.

This is an ideal opportunity for architects, planners, businesspeople, housing advocates, real estate professionals, and other enthusiasts of high-quality urban design. Here's the job description:

The Portland Planning Board has responsibility to recommend adoption and amendments to the comprehensive plan of the City of Portland, and to advise the City Council and Departments on implementation measures for the plan. The Board has jurisdiction to hear, review and approve applications for development including site plans, subdivisions, street vacations, shoreland zone, and other regulations governing development as appropriate. The Planning Board makes recommendations to the City Council on applications for zoning text and map amendments, contract rezonings, and amendments to or substantial revisions of the Zoning Ordinance.
Additional information is available in the City Clerk’s office, on the City’s website at www.portlandmaine.gov or at 874-8677. Deadline for submission is November 2, 2012. Please send a resume and cover letter to Appointments Committee Chairman, c/o Katherine L. Jones, City Clerk, 389 Congress Street, Portland ME 04101 or klj@portlandmaine.gov.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Portland's new Bicycle and Pedestrian chapter of the Comprehensive Plan

Please note that this meeting has been rescheduled to November 5th due to Hurricane Sandy.

The Planning Board's next meeting, on Monday the 5th, will workshop the rough draft of Portland's new Bicycle and Pedestrian chapter of the Comprehensive Plan (download the PDF here).

The plan includes a map of planned citywide bike routes, cyclist safety education initiatives, and a framework of "quality of service" engineering standards that will set measurable benchmarks for safer streets and sidewalks. This Planning Board workshop will be a chance for the Board and citizens to offer feedback and suggestions before the document goes to the City Council for formal adoption, which will give it legal force as a component of the city's comprehensive plan.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why I Care About Housing

These are the chief reasons why I care about housing policy — and specifically, why City Hall needs to do a lot better when it comes to building more housing in-town:

  • As an environmentalist, I'm most concerned about global warming and our addictions to fossil fuels. In Maine, a lot of our electricity already comes from renewable sources, and we're making good strides on energy efficiency in buildings. Moving more people closer to where they live and work — into neighborhoods where they can walk and bike to run most errands, or, at the very least, drive much shorter distances — is the most effective thing we can do at the local level to make a dent in oil addiction.

  • More in-town residents means more sales for local businesses (plus more local businesses starting up to serve residents: see Reny's, for instance). I don't think that it's any coincidence that the boom in new restaurants and storefront occupancy downtown has coincided with the rapid rise in gas prices during the past 8 years: people living downtown earn similar wages as people from the suburbs, but because they don't spend nearly as much of their paychecks on cars and gasoline, they have a lot more disposable income to spend in the neighborhoods where they live (and not at the Maine Mall).

    The more housing we provide in Portland, the more we'll shift regional household spending away from Big Oil corporations and towards local businesses.

  • And as a corollary to the above point, more local businesses, and more foot traffic on local streets, means that our streets and sidewalks become more vibrant, safer, and more interesting.

  • Last but not least, I'd like Portland to remain an egalitarian place for everyone to live. A place where the working poor and recent immigrants can find opportunity and secure a measure of economic security.

    The city's recent inflation in housing rents is a big threat to those ideals. Turning people away isn't a solution (unless you're OK with Portland suffering from the same kind of gentrification-onset blandness that ruined places like Cambridge and Brooklyn — and while a lot of shitheads are perfectly OK with that, I don't consider myself a shithead), and we should be pleased that there's an increasing amount of demand to live in-town.

    But if demand is rising, then the only reasonable way for the city to combat housing price inflation is by aggressively expanding the supply of housing that's available here.

I know that some of this blog's readers are more interested in architecture or bike infrastructure, but I hope that these points will convince you to be concerned about the city's housing policies, too.

I'm posting this this evening because earlier today my biweekly column in the Portland Daily Sun addressed the city's new plan to tackle homelessness in Portland. This, too, is a big issue that affects the security and sense of vitality in Portland's downtown streets and public spaces like Congress Square. The visibility and lousy treatment of our homeless population reflects poorly on our city. As I write in the column, the city's new plan is a good first step — but it also needs to come with meaningful commitments to the city's social services, and to building more apartments citywide.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bike/Ped Advisory Committee meets tonight

The Portland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meets this evening at 5:30 pm in Room 24 of City Hall (in the basement level near the Myrtle Street entrance). As always, new faces are welcome, so come drop by and learn more about some of the exciting plans in the works to improve Portland's streets.

Please note that, while we typically meet on the 2nd Monday of each month, today's meeting was rescheduled due to Columbus Day last week.

On our agenda:

5:30 pm - welcome and introductions
5:35 pm - brief updates:

5:45 pm - Meet Jeremiah Bartlett, the city's new Transportation Engineer

6 pm - Nominate rep. from PBPAC to Libbytown Traffic and Streetscape Study citizens' advisory committee

6:10 pm - Discuss candidate studies for funding under the regional "urban planning work plan" listed here).

6:20 pm - Open Streets Update (Jen and Zach)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Next Neighborhood Byway: Fore River to Deering Center

PACTS, the regional transportation funding and planning agency, is set to approve a small batch of construction projects for the 2013 and 2014 construction seasons. There are some small changes being planned for Woodford's Corner that could widen sidewalks and make marginal improvements to the streets in that neighborhood, based on the Transforming Forest Avenue Study*, and some street reconstruction projects. There's also a proposal to extend the new Veterans Memorial Bridge path from its current southern terminus on South Portland's Main Street, in a bleak district of car repair shops, half a mile further to Broadway at Cash Corner, a bleak district of fast food joints.

But the most exciting project being proposed is one that would extend the city's first "Neighborhood Byway" from Deering Center and Woodford's Corner southward through Libbytown to the Thompson's Point transportation center and the planned sports arena/office complex, along existing low-traffic neighborhood streets (view a map here).

Most of the project's modest budget would go towards traffic calming, and particularly towards shrinking the size of jumbo intersections along the way to give bikes and pedestrians shorter, safer crossings of major roads like Brighton Avenue and Congress Street. The main idea is to make those big, busy streets feel less intimidating, and reduce their impact as barriers that prevent neighborhood residents from walking and biking to the bus & train station on Thompson Point, or to errands in Woodford's Corner.

For instance, where Sewall Street currently meets Congress near the Portland Transportation Center, the crosswalk is currently 70 feet long (longer that the crossings of the much busier Washington Avenue on Munjoy Hill). The Byway plan would move the curbs to create shorter crossings and improve the streetscape with new landscaping:

Moving north towards Woodfords Corner, the crossing of Brighton Avenue would also be improved for bikes and pedestrians with new crosswalks with median refuge islands, which will also help slow down traffic along this length of Brighton:

And finally, where the new Byway meets Woodford Street, there are plans for additional refuge island crosswalks plus — between the two islands — a short center-turn lane for bikes to negotiate the jog from Beacon Street to the contra-flow bike lane on Nevins (which, in turn, connects to the existing Neighborhood Byway to Deering Center to the west, and to the Ocean Avenue bike lane to the east):

Additionally, the entire route would get new wayfinding signage, similar to the signs that went up in Deering early this spring. If all goes well, this might go under construction late next summer, or in 2014.

* As several have suggested, Transforming Bits of Forest Avenue But Not the Parts With Four Lanes of Traffic and not the Drive-Thrus Either and Actually Not Transforming Most of It, Really But Can We Have Our Massive Consulting Fee 'K Thanks Bye might have been a better name.

Monday, October 1, 2012

"Bay House" under construction — a smart growth housing milestone for Portland

I'd had my doubts whether it would come together — the developers were under a deadline to begin construction by the end of September or else lose their zoning approvals — but late last week a couple of diggers showed up and broke ground on the Bay House, the first large market-rate, mixed-use apartment building to go up on the Portland peninsula in decades.

I spoke with Alex Jaegerman from the city planning office this morning, and he told me that the Bay House is having an official groundbreaking tomorrow. They've also taken out a performance guarantee with the city — meaning that, if the project shuts down at this point, the banks will be on the hook for site stabilization and sidewalk reconstruction.

Since that's something that the lenders definitely want to avoid, it's sort of seen as a point of no return, and a sign that the developers have a real construction loan in hand and are really committed to building the thing.

It'll be a welcome addition to my neighborhood, and a more than welcome addition (94 new rental apartments) to Portland's strained housing supply.