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

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bayside update

The Federated Companies' proposal for the old scrap yard in Bayside continues to be refined. They're currently seeking a zoning amendment that would allow their project to proceed, and they've been tempting planners with some of these tantalizing sketches (from the most recent Planning Board workshop, held this afternoon):

The image above takes some liberties; the green space depicted to the left is actually a paved parking lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. Below: a view of a proposed new plaza along the Bayside Trail, looking from the rear of Planet Dog store southwards towards downtown. The building on the right is a large parking garage with a large first-floor retail space, on the left is a residential apartment tower with more ground-floor retail.

Here are a few of the hoops they'll still need to jump through. Approval for the project is still months away, at least:
  1. Planning Board approval for zoning amendments (hopefully in a public hearing at the next Planning Board meeting, mid-March)
  2. City Council approval of zoning amendments (end of March/early April)
  3. Agreements with the City of Portland regarding the redesign and reconstruction of Somerset Street and title agreements for the Bayside Trail encroachment (unknown timeline)
  4. Planning board workshops for subdivision and site plan
  5. Planning board public hearing and approval of subdivision and site plan
  6. Execution of Purchase and Sale agreement, transferring land ownership from City of Portland to Federated Companies
  7. Financing and building permits

Reviewing the city's planning memos, I'm encouraged to see that city staff share the concerns that the developers might be building too large of a parking garage.

The proposed Phase 1 would set aside 221 parking spaces for a 196-unit apartment building (plus 191 spaces for retail uses, plus 200 spaces for city-mandated 'public' parking, plus 68 spaces for existing businesses like Trader Joes and Whole Foods). This is far in excess of the other successful market-rate apartment and condo developments currently being built (the Bay House and the proposed West End Place, both of which only have 0.8 spaces per apartment).

The last project to propose parking at a 1-to-1 ratio, the Newbury Street Lofts, proved to be an aesthetic disaster and financially unworkable. Buyers and renters are generally unwilling to pay the rents necessary to finance this level of parking in Portland, a city where substantial market demand is coming from households looking to get rid of their cars in one of the only New England cities where it's possible to do so. I'd hate to see a similar fate befall this project due to unreasonable parking expenses.

That said, my concerns are somewhat allayed by the possibility of reducing the parking planned for Phase II, when two more apartment buildings are planned. It still strikes me as a bad financial decision to build dubious infrastructure up front, but ultimately it's up to Federated to assess those risks and deal with their consequences. 

The other sticking point is that Federated is proposing to encroach on the right of way of the Bayside Trail for a short stretch east of Chestnut Street, while also adding to the public right of way with wider sidewalks on Somerset Street on the other side. While this is of some concern to everyone, it seems like the city is ready to demand strong urban design and architecture along the trail side to compensate, and I think it'll be worth it.

I also hold out hope that the developers might strike a deal with the owner of the abutting Planet Fitness parking lot — converting just a few of the trail-abutting parking spaces to compact or parallel parking could restore the Bayside Trail to comfortable width in the pinch-point. But since the owner of the parking lot is Peter Quesada, the same embittered crank who refuses to remove the fence between the trail and Trader Joe's, we probably shouldn't hope for much.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Freeway deconstruction: now in progress

To anyone who doubts whether Portland will ever be rid of Interstate 295 through downtown and along our Back Cove waterfront: we've already started to dismantle freeway infrastructure from the 1950s. And so far, drivers have hardly noticed the difference.

In the 1950s, before Interstate 295 existed, the original Veterans Memorial Bridge was built with a freeway-like on- and off-ramps on either side of the Fore River to carry high-speed Route 1 traffic. Here's a road map of the area from 1957, when the Route 1 expressway was brand-new:

Here's a view of the grade-separated off-ramp on the South Portland approach that existed until early last year:

And here's what it looks like now. Fewer lanes, a cheap stop-sign controlled intersection, and a nice wide new path for bikes and pedestrians:

Has South Portland become choked with traffic since losing one of its oldest freeway spurs? No, it hasn't been.

The biggest impact to losing a freeway spur has been that thousands of residents of South Portland's neighborhoods now have safe and convenient access to the West End of Portland by foot or by bike.

And this is only the beginning.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The loyal opposition

Today's Press Herald has a story from my colleague Tom Bell about Westbrook resident Brian Peterson, who is very worked up about the city's efforts to update its unsustainably expensive, 1970s-era highway infrastructure for the 21st century. 

Peterson is grumpy about recent efforts to convert State and High Streets back into regular 2-way city streets, as they were before the mid-1970s.

I certainly don't agree with much of what Peterson says. But I think it's an excellent article that, in spite of its subject, ends up strongly supporting safer, smaller streets.

Because outside of Peterson's, all of the quotes — and all of the fact-based evidence presented in the story — supports the two-way conversion of State and High, and continued "road diets" elsewhere in the city. For instance, City Councilor Dave Marshall:

"Since the Fore River Parkway was completed in 2005, connecting Exit 5 of Interstate 295 with West Commercial Street, traffic volumes on High and State streets have declined, with traffic at some intersections dropping as much as 20 percent, said City Councilor David Marshall, who chairs the council's Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee." 

"By moving traffic to the Fore River Parkway, motorists no longer have to drive though the two densest urban neighborhoods in the state," Marshall said.
Peterson's arguments, on the other hand, are as follows (these are his quotes from the story):
  • "It's crazy."
  • "It will shut the city down."
  • "Portland constantly is being voted one of the most walkable cities in America. How walkable does it have to be?"
  • And finally, a 40-year-old Portland Press Herald article, from 1973, in which a state traffic engineer said that converting the streets to one-way streets will relieve "major safety and capacity problems across the Portland peninsula in the north-south direction" (modern computer models would refute this, but if all you're working with is a slide rule, conventional wisdom, and a paycheck from highway lobbyists, it probably made sense at the time). 
Compared to the reasonable points of Marshall and others, Peterson's "it's crazy" argument doesn't sound very sophisticated. He has a very long-winded website, if you've got three days to spare and want to read a lot more of the same.

But I've never seen this guy show up at any public meetings, and it's hard to see how he expects to be convincing to anyone who doesn't already agree with him.

I do wish that Bell had asked him whether he'd be willing to pay more to maintain wide roads, since the current fiscal climate, coupled with declining traffic in general, is what's really driving the trend of road diets. I wonder this guy would be willing to pay an extra $1 or $2 a gallon at the pump in order to help pay for the upkeep of his crumbling 1970s-era highway paradises?

Is this your bike?

Someone left this bike, sans rear wheel, on the sidewalk outside our house in East Bayside a few weeks ago. I corralled it in the backyard for safekeeping before more parts got stripped off it. Anyone recognize it? Leave a comment if you do.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

City Hall likes bikesharing

I just returned to Portland after a long weekend in Quebec, where, as you may be aware, the pioneering "Bixi" bike-sharing program debuted in Montreal 2009 and has since licensed the technology to several other cities, including Boston.

So I missed last Friday's news that Portland's new planning director, Jeff Levine, had of his own initiative landed an Environmental Protection Agency grant to investigate the feasibility of starting a bikeshare system here in Portland.

From the city's press release:

Bikeshare is a program in which bicycles are made available for shared use. The program is designed to provide free or affordable access to bicycles for short-distance trips in an urban area as an alternative to motorized public transit or private vehicles. Bikeshare programs help reduce congestion, noise and air pollution and support sustainable growth that encourages local economic development while safeguarding health and the environment. As a part of the technical assistance provided, EPA staff and national experts will hold a one to two-day workshop in the city focusing on the Planning for Bikeshare tool, which will explore the potential of establishing a bikeshare program in the community.

According to Tom Bell's report in the Press Herald, the grant will bring in business planners from Alta Bicycle Share, the company that manages most of the nation's largest bikesharing systems, including Boston's "Hubway", using technology licensed from Montreal.

This is only a feasibility study, which means that an actual bikeshare program is probably years away still.

Nevertheless, Portland seems to have the kinds of characteristics that should lend itself to bikesharing: tourists, mostly safe streets downtown, and a bike-friendly density of population, jobs, and services. While bikesharing's North American debuts happened in big cities like Montreal, Washington, DC, and Minneapolis, it's increasingly spreading to and succeeding in smaller cities like Boulder, CO and Spartanburg, SC. Even tiny Pullman, Washington (population 29,799) has 120 shared bikes in its Washington State University-managed "Greenbike" system.

Portland also may benefit from its relative proximity to Hubway in Boston. Rather than roll out its own system from scratch, the city might want to approach it as a self-contained expansion of the Hubway system, to create a northern outpost of the same network with unique local sponsors.

Doing so would give Portland's network a pre-existing base of customers, who would be able to use their same membership card to hop on a bike and ride downtown as soon as they arrive at the bus station, and it would give Portland-based riders the chance to use the same system when they travel to Boston.

Expanding Hubway to Portland might also allow Portland to save on startup expenses by building on existing technology and expertise. Some of that expertise might come from city planner Jeff Levine, the very same fellow who applied for the grant. Jeff was working in the Brookline, MA City Hall when that city welcomed its own expansion of Hubway stations.

If we could convince intermediate cities like Biddeford/Saco and Portsmouth to sponsor their own small networks, Hubway might even become the nation's first intercity bikesharing network to allow for weekend bike tours (it's a 130 mile ride, give or take, with Portsmouth conveniently located near the halfway point).

So, even though I was a few days late on this story, I'll be keeping a close eye on it and will report on this blog when the actual planning study gets underway.

In the meantime, I plan to write a short note to Jeff Levine and his boss, city manager Mark Rees (mrees [at] portlandmaine.gov), to congratulate them on the grant and to thank them for taking this initiative.