November 30, 2013

Maine Voices: Building a megaplex isn’t the way to make Portland’s Bayside neighborhood better

The upper-income midtown proposal won’t open up middle-income housing near walkable work sites.

By Peter Monro

A movement is growing for a different development in Bayside than the proposed massive residential towers and parking garages of the Federated Cos.’ midtown project. It’s not just that midtown is wrong in its details. It’s wrong in violating the New Vision for Bayside. And it’s the wrong way to rejuvenate Bayside as an economically vibrant and socially diverse community.

ABOUT THe author

Peter Monro is a 25-year resident of Portland’s West End, co-founder of Keep Portland Livable and a registered landscape architect with an office in Bayside.

The road forward forks here, for the neighborhood and the city as a whole. The tsunami of development on the horizon for Portland’s peninsula will either reshape this city in its own traditions as a livable and walkable set of mixed-income neighborhoods with good-paying jobs and family housing, or it will use our livability as bait for a city hollowed out for tourists and the wealthy.

Meanwhile, the stunning idea that developing low-income jobs and upper-income housing for wealthy folks from here and away, as midtown would do, will open up housing for middle-income families near walkable work sites would be laughable if it weren’t so widely held and so broadly damning for the future of our city.

The New Vision for Bayside crafted by the neighborhood a decade ago got it right: Streets and open spaces form the basis of cities, especially Portland. Buildings are the social architecture that fill in small, regular blocks created by streets. Only lively streets make lively cities. Portland Museum of Art designer Harry Cobb put it aptly at this year’s Osher lecture: “Portland is not known for its buildings. It’s known for its streets.”

But midtown’s developer and the city officials backing it think they know better. This project will wall off street corridors and, against Bayside’s New Vision, will impede walkers and cyclists from traveling around the neighborhood as directly and easily as they can on Munjoy Hill, the West End or Portland’s other neighborhoods.

Taller buildings should form gateways to the downtown, the Bayside Vision said, or form the spine of downtown along Congress Street. When we have allowed tall buildings to be built elsewhere, we have regretted it. Think Franklin Towers competing with the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, or Portland House on the Eastern Prom.

However, do not be surprised if the Planning Board votes unanimously in favor of this misguided development. Its members are chosen by a City Council that has already voted without qualms to overrule good urban design principles – and the wishes of the neighborhood – to allow taller buildings away from main corridors.

But votes in vogue today do not always bring bright tomorrows. Look at what Portland chose to do in the 1970s. Our city officials thought that granting the developers of the Holiday Inn everything they wanted would bring economic salvation to the city. Instead, they got a white elephant we wish would disappear and a repellent, too-wide artery that we are now 40 years later trying to narrow and reconnect to surrounding neighborhoods.

It’s no surprise our city has failed to redevelop Bayside. It hasn’t taken the lead in extending the streets, improving the aging infrastructure and seeking small-scale developers to fill in the gaps block by block. No wonder few developers want to build here – the city insists on setting the terms, but it hasn’t done its job in minimizing the risks of flooded streets, collapsing pipes and oversized parcels.

The economic basis for a revitalized, mixed-income Bayside is happening around us already, in the incubator, artisanal and clean tech businesses that grow in human-scaled buildings linked to their communities. Look no further than East Bayside for the new shoots of 21st-century industry and commerce that could flourish in Bayside. In this Bayside, people will be able to work, live and raise families in their community as they did in Bayside’s past.

Officials have instead gone for the silver bullet, the single megaplex that would herald a new dawn in Bayside, not as a vibrant walkable neighborhood, not as a neighborhood at all (“Get over that idea,” Planning Board member Jack Soley has told us in just those terms), but as a developer’s profit-making complex now, and our city’s problem – we the taxpayers’ problem – from then on.

The physical result, as proposed, is a veritable gated community, with its protruding, raised end walls and narrow sidewalks. It drives every sort of stake through the heart of the Bayside Trail, deadening even this artery rather than activating it. (Read more about it at www.KeepPortlandLivable.com.)

The New Vision for Bayside had it right, and it provides a better way forward for Portland. Residents and taxpayers who feel the way we do are urged to attend the public hearing on midtown at 5 p.m. Dec. 10 at Portland City Hall. The Planning Board needs to hear from you.

— Special to the Press Herald

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