March 11, 2010

FRANKLIN ARTERIAL Rethinking an urban vision landscape


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Scott Hanson, of Portland’s historic preservation department, is seen with Franklin Arterial behind him. He believes this lower portion, near Commercial Street, is the most attractive.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Thursday, April 23, 2009...A Portland city committee is looking at ways to undo some of the damage the Franklin Arterial caused when it was built 40 years ago. City of Portland historic preservation staffer Scott Hanson (left) and Markos Miller, co-chair of the Franklin Street Arterial Committee look at some historic photos of Franklin Street before the arterial was built.

Additional Photos Below

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Forty years ago this summer, crews began building the Franklin Street Arterial, an ambitious project that was part of an even grander scheme to encircle the city's business district with a network of highways and thoroughfares.

About 130 buildings were razed to make room for the new arterial, initially promoted as a six-lane ''crosstown expressway.''

Proponents said it would help the city compete with the automobile-friendly suburbs by giving motorists easy access to downtown. Critics said it would displace hundreds of families and create a pedestrian barrier between Munjoy Hill and the rest of the city.

Four decades later, people are still debating the arterial, which is seven-tenths of a mile long and connects the city's waterfront with I-295. On a typical workday, more than 27,000 vehicles use the road's busiest stretch near Marginal Way, but fewer than 6,000 vehicles use the section at the opposite end near Commercial Street.

City planners are inviting the pubic to attend a forum Wednesday to brainstorm ideas about how to redesign it. They hope to find ways to move the same amount of traffic while creating a more walkable and appealing urban landscape.

This is the first effort to redesign the arterial since it opened for traffic in 1970. It's part of a national movement toward a new appreciation for urban neighborhoods.

The attractive streetscape that has developed recently along the narrow portion of arterial near Commercial Street has allowed planners and others to visualize what the rest of the arterial could look like, said City Manager Joseph Gray.

''It's something that is long overdue,'' Gray said.

The political atmosphere today is entirely different from what it was in the 1960s.

Then, the federal government was funding massive ''slum clearance'' projects to remove blight and make way for development that in many cases never came.

Unlike today, local officials were more willing to use eminent domain to acquire property. And neighborhoods were less organized.

Around the same time the city was clearing a path for Franklin Arterial, demolition crews were clearing neighborhoods in Bayside for commercial development and East Bayside and Munjoy South for public housing projects.

The federal government was still building the interstate highway system, and cities were scrambling to connect downtowns with the new highways because they believed it was the only way to keep their downtowns alive, said Lucy Gibson, a transportation planner working with the city to redesign Franklin Arterial.

Local governments encouraged migration to the suburbs, where people could attain the ''American dream'' of owning a home and commuting by car, said John Duncan, director of the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, a regional planning agency.

''New roads were welcomed big time here and throughout the country,'' he said. ''The freedom of movement that cars brought was just beginning to blossom.''

A compact city built around railroads and a deep-water harbor, Portland seemed ill-equipped for the influx of automobiles.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, traffic congestion and slums were the among the biggest issues discussed frequently in newspaper articles.

Traffic was particularly congested on Washington Avenue -- the primary route for commuters from the north, said John Menario, who worked as city manager from 1967 to 1976.

Motorists had no choice but to drive through what Menario called ''slums'' to reach downtown, he said.

Once they arrived, there was nowhere to park. Major employers were unwilling to locate in Portland, he said. No significant office building had been built downtown since the early 1900s.

To make driving downtown more convenient, city officials developed a plan to clear the blighted neighborhoods and build public parking garages and a ''ring road system'' around the city center.

Franklin Street Arterial was part of that ring. In addition, the city made High and State streets one-way roads, and demolished several blocks west of the Old Port for a southside expressway, which became the Spring Street Arterial, where the Civic Center is today.

The Spring Street Arterial -- which links to Franklin Arterial via Middle Street -- was supposed to connect with State Street, but opposition from affluent residents living in Park Street row houses stopped it. It ended up being a four-lane divided highway four blocks long.

The original Franklin Arterial project called for building six lanes, with two center lanes passing underneath Cumberland Avenue and Congress Street, either through a tunnel or under bridges.

That phase was never built because the city ran out of money. In the end, the planned express lanes instead became a wide center strip.

To keep pedestrians away, sidewalks were not installed.

The arterial roughly follows the route of Franklin Street, a narrow residential street that once meandered across the peninsula. Blocks on either side were leveled to cut a 210-foot swath at its widest point. Entire streets vanished from the map. Others, such as Oxford and Federal streets, were cut in half and turned into dead-ends.

The arterial curves around the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception and adjacent Guild Hall. Saving those buildings forced planners to remove a significant segment of Lincoln Park, including several towering elm trees.

The $3.5 million project (about $21 million in today's dollars) was controversial. Councilor Popkins Zakarian at the time called it a ''monstrous'' plan and warned it would divide the city like the Berlin Wall.

Large numbers of people from the targeted neighborhoods opposed the plan, Menario recalled. Several downtown businessmen lobbied for it, though, saying the city's downtown revitalization plan could not go forward without it.

On July 8, 1968, the council voted 6-2 to start construction that summer.

''I marvel at the courage they had to vote as they did,'' Menario said.

When demolition crews arrived, some residents refused to leave their homes. Sheriff's deputies were called in to evict them. In all, some 350 families and businesses were displaced.


It was a heart-wrenching experience, but the project proved to be crucial to revitalizing downtown, Menario said.

Cumberland County commissioners would never have built the Civic Center in Portland if the city hadn't improved automobile access, he said. Moreover, several other major projects never would have happened, including the Holiday Inn by the Bay and Canal Plaza and One City Center.

The money spent by the city was used as the local match to win $9 million in federal funding for the Maine Way Plan, which focused on economic development projects downtown.

''The Franklin Street Arterial's contribution to the economic health of downtown Portland was equivalent to a successful quadruple bypass on a patient dying from clogged arteries,'' Menario said.

In the late 1960s, many residents believed Portland was ''stuck in a rut'' and hoped the Franklin Arterial would make the city economically stronger and more vibrant, said Tom Valleau, the city's urban renewal director in the 1970s.

The plan succeeded, he said.

''Without a doubt, I think it's a wonderful piece of infrastructure,'' he said. ''I think it's well-designed. It provides a daily flow of commerce in and out of the city we depend on.''

The arterial's modern-day critics, though, view it as a suburban interloper disconnected from the city's urban fabric.

The arterial destroyed many historic buildings and several vibrant ethnic neighborhoods, including Jewish and Italian neighborhoods, said Rep. Herb Adams, D-Portland, who represents the district.

''The best engineers and social scientists would have said it's a good thing. You tear down the old and build a highway so people can drive fast, and you put people in big buildings, like Franklin Towers, and you solve your social problems,'' he said. ''The reality is that it cut the city into pieces sure as scissors.''

Colello ''Sonny'' Breggia, 69, who grew up at 195 Franklin St., said his parents were distraught when they were forced to sell their three-family house and leave.

''It was fun growing up there. I miss it,'' he said. ''I'm trying to figure out where my house was every time I go down there. I can't put my finger on it.''

Maria Trivellin, whose grandmother lived at 68 Franklin St., where her mother also ran a beauty shop, said her grandmother had a beautiful flower garden in the front of the house and a vegetable garden in the rear.

Everything was accessible by foot, including the ''uptown'' movie theaters, neighborhood bakeries and grocery stores.

''I didn't think of it as a slum,'' she said. ''I knew we weren't rich, but we weren't lacking for anything.''

Daniel Haley Jr., whose father, the late Daniel T. Haley, was a bitter opponent of the project, said housing in the neighborhood was not as dilapidated as officials claimed.

The grass-roots effort to stop the project developed too late.

''I think they had a pretty good crew against it,'' he said. ''But it was a done deal by the time they tried to fight it.''

Neighborhoods viewed as slums in the 1960s would today be viewed as highly desirable places to live, said Scott Hanson, an employee in the city's historic preservation program.

Many of the buildings that were destroyed were similar to buildings on West End on Pine Street near Longfellow Square, he said.


Markos Miller, a Munjoy Hill resident who co-chairs the committee redesigning the arterial, said he avoids talking about the past. He wants his committee to focus on improving the arterial without harming its capacity to move traffic.

The committee is considering a number of ideas, including squeezing lanes closer together to open up land for development. It is also looking at ways to reconnect streets that the arterial had divided and creating more places for people to cross.

The arterial offers great views. Designed right, he said, it could be an attractive destination as well as a travel corridor.

''We imagine that someday people could say, 'Hey, let's have dinner on Franklin Street before going to that show at the Merrill.' ''

On a recent afternoon, as Miller walked along Franklin Arterial, he pointed to dirt paths that pedestrians have established where there once were cross streets. The fences at the end of the streets have been pushed over or cut away.

As he spoke, two men who had been walking on Oxford Street climbed through a fence and scampered across the median, followed by a group of young boys.

''Are you going to make this better?'' asked one of the men, William Lunt, when he saw Miller walking with a reporter.

Lunt, who lives in an apartment on nearby Boyd Street, said the arterial is unsafe.

''It's scary,'' he said. ''A kid is going to get cleaned out by a car one of these days.''

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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Additional Photos

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Thursday, April 23, 2009...A Portland city committee is looking at ways to undo some of the damage the Franklin Arterial caused when it was built 40 years ago. Markos Miller, co-chair of the Franklin Street Arterial Committee.

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A well-worn pathway, called a “desire line” to indicate favored paths established by pedestrians, crosses Franklin Arterial before joining Federal Street.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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The intersection of Oxford and Franklin streets in Portland as the area looks today. Severed by Franklin Arterial, Oxford Street is now a dead end. Critics of the arterial say its construction destroyed city neighborhoods, then considered slums, that would be highly desirable today.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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A 1950s photo of the intersection of Oxford and Franklin streets in Portland.

Courtesy Maine Historical Society

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Staff Photo by Gordon Chibroski, Wednesday, March 14, 2001: "Hanging Art" ...... Kevin Thomas of Portland Public Works Traffic Division hangs one of 15 large signs along Franklin Arterial, Commercial St. and State Street using a new method of special clips to withstand any kind of weather.

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Aerial photos, taken in 1966 and 1970 looking toward Portland Harbor, show the visual impact of Franklin Arterial. Its supporters say much of downtown development would never have occurred without the road.

File photos

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