March 18, 2010

Rethinking an urban vision

By TOM BELL, 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.

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