An effort to redesign Franklin Street into a more pedestrian-friendly road could free up acres of city land at a time when Portland is in the midst of a development boom.
One real estate agent with experience marketing properties in Bayside speculated that the value of that land, located within the city-owned right of way, could top $1 million an acre on the private market.
“It wouldn’t take long for a retail developer to come in and scoop it up,” said Frank O’Connor, a broker at NAI The Dunham Group who has brokered several real estate deals in West Bayside.
The City Council would decide what to do with the land in the right of way.
The exact amount of new real estate won’t be known until after an advisory group presents a final recommendation.
Franklin Street is a two-way, four-lane artery that runs between Interstate 295 and Commercial Street. The grassy median runs from Middle Street to Marginal Way. A redesign would free up acres of valuable real estate in East Bayside and downtown Portland.
The India Street neighborhood could be reconnected to the downtown by restoring the street grid. More than 100 market-rate residences are under construction in that neighborhood.
Another 24-unit market-rate condo project at Newbury and Franklin streets, which has received Planning Board approvals, has been put on hold until the Franklin Street redesign and a neighborhood planning study are completed. That property is owned by S. Donald Sussman, the majority owner of the Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
In addition to new development opportunities, the redesign could also lead to the expansion of Lincoln Park. The 2.5-acre park is only three-quarters of its previous size.
The 19-member public advisory group made up of neighborhood residents, city officials and business representatives plans to have a recommendation ready by this summer, according to Carol Morris, the spokeswoman for the project.
Residents may offer input at a public meeting being held Wednesday at the Portland Public Library. And the city has launched a Web page – franklinstreet.mindmixer.com – to collect feedback.
The Franklin Street arterial was built as part of the urban renewal movement in the 1960s. Entire neighborhoods, mostly of immigrant families, were destroyed and the India Street neighborhood was severed from the downtown to create a major thoroughfare to move traffic into and out of the city.
Other arterials, such as those along Spring, High and State streets, also were created at the time.
The road projects were recommended by consultant Victor Gruen, who is considered the father of suburban shopping malls.
Gruen originally called for Spring Street to be connected to Franklin Street, but area merchants killed the project, according to Jeremiah Bartlett, the city’s transportation systems engineer.
Gruen also called for an underground tunnel that would carry Franklin Street underneath Congress Street and Cumberland Avenue. That’s why the road has such a wide median, Bartlett said.
The effort to undo the arterial dates back to 2006, when the city’s Peninsula Traffic Study recommended widening Franklin Street to eight lanes. That proposal drew the opposition of the Bayside Neighborhood Association and the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, according to Markos Miller, a former MHNO president who has been deeply involved with the Franklin Street redesign.
“The (traffic study) proposal failed to address many of the shortcomings of the corridor – no pedestrian facilities, few crossings, no bike access and acres of inaccessible or underutilized public space,” Miller said.
A working group completed the first phase of the redesign in 2009. The group developed three different concepts. The second phase includes a refinement or mixing of those concepts, as well as construction-level designs of a final recommendation, said Michael Bobinsky, Portland’s director of public services.
“Right now (Franklin Street) is a barrier,” Bobinsky said. “The goal is to make it more of a part of the city and not like a sore thumb.”
Two of the primary objectives of the redesign are to address these shortcomings and remove the large grassy median with trees, according to Bartlett.
On Wednesday, residents will be able to weigh in on what the bike and pedestrian amenities should look like. There will be a focus on transportation choices, new development and parking, public green space, reconnecting cross streets, roundabouts, and three redesign concepts that came out of the first phase of the redesign effort.
Regarding transportation choices, residents can say whether they prefer a dedicated multi-use bike-pedestrian path or simply a shared bike lane painted in the traffic lanes.
They can also indicate how they feel about reserving land for a future fixed rail transit service, and what type of development they’d like to see along Franklin Street.
“Public process is critical along the way,” Bobinsky said.
Many Portland residents have been calling for more affordable housing in the city. Mayor Michael Brennan last week called on the city to inventory its land holdings and initiate a public discussion about which spaces should be protected and which could be developed into affordable housing.
Real estate broker O’Connor, however, was skeptical that affordable housing could work on Franklin Street. He said the office market in West Bayside is hot right now and that the land being freed up in East Bayside would be best suited for retail because of its visibility and proximity to Interstate 295.
“I think the price point on the land is going to preclude affordable housing,” O’Connor speculated.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: