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

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Donald does right by the East End

As reported in the Forecaster and Press Herald, Donald Sussman, the owner of several lots along Hampshire Street in East Bayside, has shelved his hybrid parking garage/condominium development proposal in order to re-evaluate his development options.

The 2-level parking fortress at the base of this project wasn't merely aesthetically clunky and hostile to the neighborhood's sidewalks — it also turned out to be a ball-and-chain to profit margins for the high-priced condos above. A competing project down the street, the Bay House, also went under construction this fall — but it will include 20% fewer parking spaces per unit, and will thus offer lower costs to buyers for a similar-value home.

Not reported in the newspapers was another possible motive for this decision: the imminent final planning effort for the Franklin Street corridor. City Hall has reportedly selected a preferred planning/engineering team to work with, and a contract could be signed any day now to finally begin the planning effort that will result in a shovel-ready construction plan for a new, reconnected Franklin Street.

That plan is almost certain to reduce Franklin to a smaller 2-lane street between Congress and Commercial. That, in turn, will free up a lot of surplus city-owned real estate on either side of the new street. The new Franklin Street could end up giving Sussman 10% to 20% more developable land to work with on this same site — and that, in turn, will give his developers more room to screen parking inside the lot, provide rentable, active ground-floor retail spaces, and offer more attractive terms to condo buyers.

That's a smart return on investment for waiting a year or two. And it makes it likely that the neighborhood will end up with a better-designed building, with active ground-floor uses that (unlike a parking garage) will engage the street and improve surrounding property values.

I should add a final disclosure: I've begun a day job at the Press Herald, which means, in a very indirect way, that I work for Donald Sussman (who is the paper's majority owner). Obviously that won't prevent me from lamenting his taste in architecture in this blog.