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.

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